New Study Improves Cancer Detection Using CRISPR-Cas

By Pranav Mahapatra

April 27, 2023
cancer cells
Human colorectal cancer cells treated with a topoisomerase inhibitor and an inhibitor of the protein kinase ATR (ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3 related), a drug combination under study as a cancer therapy. Cell nuclei are stained blue; the chromosomal protein histone gamma-H2AX marks DNA damage in red and foci of DNA replication in green. Created by Yves Pommier, Rozenn Josse, 2014

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a non-invasive, rapid, and cost-effective diagnostic method for detecting multiple types of cancer using CRISPR technology.

The related paper CRISPR-Cas-amplified urinary biomarkers for multiplexed and portable cancer diagnostics[1], recently published on Nature, presents a urine test that identifies cancer biomarkers, offering a promising alternative to traditional diagnostic techniques.

How does this CRISPR-Based Cancer Detection Work?

Researchers leveraged CRISPR-Cas technology to create a urinary biomarker detection system.

The test identifies cancer-specific protease enzymes in the urine, which are indicative of the presence of tumors in the body.

This system uses CRISPR-Cas12a, a DNA-cutting enzyme that, when activated by the presence of a target protease, cleaves a DNA barcode.

The cleavage releases a detectable signal which is then utilized to analyze the urine samples for the presence of these DNA barcodes, indicating the presence of cancer in the body.

Promising Results in Animal Models

Researchers tested their innovative approach on various animal models, including colorectal cancer (CRC) lung tumors, prostate cancer (PCa) xenografts, and autochthonous lung tumors in mice.

The results demonstrated the test’s ability to detect cancer with high accuracy and specificity in these models, paving the way for further research and eventually human trials.

Our goal here is to build up disease signatures and to see whether we can use these barcoded panels not only to read out a disease but also to classify a disease or distinguish different cancer types.

Liangliang Hao, Lead author of the Study

Potential Applications and Benefits of the Research

Traditional cancer diagnostic methods often involve invasive procedures, such as biopsies, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

The new CRISPR-based urine test aims to overcome these challenges by providing a non-invasive, rapid, and cost-effective alternative and could also effectively help in early-stage detection.

The test has shown promising results in detecting colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer in animal models, demonstrating its potential as a versatile diagnostic tool.

Summarising the potential benefits of the research:

  • Early-stage detection: This test could help identify cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be successful.
  • Non-invasive procedure: The test only requires a urine sample, making it a more convenient and comfortable option for patients.
  • Faster results: The Cas12a cleavage assay can provide results within hours, allowing for quicker diagnosis and treatment initiation.
  • Cost-effective: This test could be less expensive than current diagnostic methods, increasing accessibility for a broader population.

Next Steps and Future Research

Although the study presents promising results in animal models, further research is required to validate its effectiveness in human patients.

The research team plans to continue refining the technology and expanding the range of cancer types that the test can detect.


The ultimate goal is to develop a reliable, multiplexed, and portable diagnostic tool that can help save lives by detecting cancer at its earliest stages.


  1. Liangliang Hao, Renee T. Zhao et al., ‘CRISPR-Cas-amplified urinary biomarkers for multiplexed and portable cancer diagnostics‘, Nature (Nanotechnology), 24 April 2023,[]