Non-Invasive Lung Cancer Detection Technology Is a Winner at MIT’S Accelerate Pitch Competition

What if you could determine if there is a hazardous pollutant in the air, if an explosive material is present, or if a person’s breath indicates the presence of lung cancer?

Joseph Azzarelli, a fifth-year graduate student in the laboratory of Timothy M. Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, has focused his research on developing chemically sensitive resistors (chemiresistors) for these uses. 

Azzarelli creates gas-detecting wireless sensors by modifying near-field communication (NFC) tags to produce a Chemically Actuated Resonant Device (CARD). CARDs are produced by modifying a simple resonant circuit with a carbon-nanotube-based chemiresistor which is designed to detect a specific gas. The chemiresistors are simple: In 2012, the Swager Laboratory was able to draw chemiresistors into electronic circuits with the use of a mechanical pencil, the lead of which was replaced by a compressed carbon nanotube powder. This work was first described in Angewandte Chemie on October 4, 2012.

When carbon nanotubes interact with a target gas, their ability to conduct electricity changes, which modifies how the device resonates in response to radio frequency energy. When a smartphone pings the CARD, the CARD responds only if it can receive sufficient power at the smartphone-transmitted radio frequencies, allowing the phone to determine whether the circuit has been altered and the gas is present.

The new Swager Laboratory chemiresistors are inexpensive to produce, and unlike commercially available chemiresistors, require no battery or dedicated power source and can function at ambient temperatures. CARDs can be read by any smartphone that has NFC capability.

In November 2015, Swager and Azzarelli connected with three Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School students who were interested in the CARD technology. Shortly thereafter, Astraeus Technologies, which seeks to work toward producing the L-CARD devised to detect lung cancer, won $13K at the MIT’s 

$100K Accelerate Competition. They then went on to also win the MIT $100K Launch competition’s Robert P. Goldberg Grand Prize of $100K. For 25 years, the MIT $100K Competitions have been bringing together students and researchers from across MIT and Greater Boston to launch their talent, ideas, and technology into leading companies.

“We are focused on improving lung cancer diagnosis,” says Azzarelli. “The current solution to lung cancer detection, screening CT scans, is problematic due to its overwhelmingly high false positive rate and access limitations. As a result, patients experience unacceptable emotional and financial stressors, and millions of at-risk people go without ever receiving a proper screening, only to find out when it is too late. Our proposed solution, the L-CARD, is a simple gas sensor that detects volatile organic compounds in the breath of lung cancer patients with the aid of a smartphone.”

The technology used was first described in 2014 (J. M. Azzarelli, K. A. Mirica, J. B. Ravnsbæk, T. M. Swager, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 2014, 111, 18162–18166). Timothy Swager is the senior author and Joseph Azzarelli is the paper’s lead author; other authors are former postdoc Katherine Mirica and former MIT postdoc Jens Ravnsbaek.