Synthetic biology-based cellular biomedical tattoo for detection of hypercalcemia associated with cancer

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Diagnosis marks the beginning of any successful therapy. Because many medical conditions progress asymptomatically over extended periods of time, their timely diagnosis remains difficult, and this adversely affects patient prognosis. Focusing on hypercalcemia associated with cancer, we aimed to develop a synthetic biology-inspired biomedical tattoo using engineered cells that would (i) monitor long-term blood calcium concentration, (ii) detect onset of mild hypercalcemia, and (iii) respond via subcutaneous accumulation of the black pigment melanin to form a visible tattoo. For this purpose, we designed cells containing an ectopically expressed calcium-sensing receptor rewired to a synthetic signaling cascade that activates expression of transgenic tyrosinase, which produces melanin in response to persistently increased blood Ca2+. We confirmed that the melanin-generated color change produced by this biomedical tattoo could be detected with the naked eye and optically quantified. The system was validated in wild-type mice bearing subcutaneously implanted encapsulated engineered cells. All animals inoculated with hypercalcemic breast and colon adenocarcinoma cells developed tattoos, whereas no tattoos were seen in animals inoculated with normocalcemic tumor cells. All tumor-bearing animals remained asymptomatic throughout the 38-day experimental period. Although hypercalcemia is also associated with other pathologies, our findings demonstrate that it is possible to detect hypercalcemia associated with cancer in murine models using this cell-based diagnostic strategy.

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