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Research Highlight | June 08, 2021

Could wearable technology help detect deadly brain cancers early on?

From fitness tracking watches to smart hearing aids to automated insulin pumps, wearable technologies have quickly become an important part of life for many Canadians. These technologies are changing how we approach certain aspects of our healthcare and the more effective they become, the more potential for impact they have.

Seeing this, a team of Ontario-based researchers led by Terry Fox New Investigator Dr. Phedias Diamandis, a neuroscientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, is researching the possibility of harnessing the power of a new group of wearable technologies known as brain wearables to fill an unmet need in cancer care: the early detection of brain tumors.

“Brain wearables are non-invasive devices that track and collect real time electrical signals generated by the brain, much like traditional electroencephalographs,” explains Dr. Diamandis. While today they are used to autonomously detect changes in mental states and provide feedback for mediation, relaxation, and sleep health, Dr. Diamandis hopes that it could be transitioned to also help with cancer diagnoses in the not-too-distant future.

“Our thinking is that by using data from these devices to track month-to-month or year-to-year changes in a person's baseline brain activity, it might be possible to detect tumors, or other brain disorders for that matter, very early in their evolution,” he says. “Recent demonstrations that brain tumors integrate and participate in native synaptic circuits provide biological support that electrical perturbations, including disorganized rhythms and/or attenuated background activity, could be early biomarkers of their presence.”

The importance of early detection

Early detection has been proven to play a key role in improving survival in multiple cancers, including lung cancers, breast cancers and ovarian cancers. In the case of brain cancers, the importance of early detection isn’t well understood, primarily because brain tumours progress very rapidly and current screening methods using large neuro-imaging devices are costly, making it unfeasible to screen people regularly.

That’s why, when conceptualizing an effective screening tool for brain cancer, Dr. Diamandis and his team thought it was imperative to find a tool that could monitor brain health changes over short intervals (weeks to months, as opposed to current screening paradigm that focuses on years) and that could be practically applied to the general population. In this context, consumer-grade brain wearables emerged as a potential solution.

“There has already been a willingness by hundreds of millions of citizens to adopt other “smart devices” like FitBits or Apple Watches to measure their heart beats and activity levels,” he says. “Brain wearables, seem to be following a similar path, and if their adoption becomes widespread, then early detection of brain tumors may be one intriguing application for them.”

According to Dr. Diamandis, in addition to providing an opportunity to treat cancers earlier, early detection could provide brain cancer researchers with information that they currently don’t have, such as clues into the early steps of a tumour’s evolution which could reveal new vulnerabilities that could be exploited through therapy. In addition to this, Dr. Diamandis also suggests that measuring brainwave patterns could reveal how sensitive a patient’s brain is to chemoradiation therapy, which would help researchers design more personalized treatments based on a patient’s overall brain health.

“This concept is of course very early in its conception, so it’s important to know this is not yet ready for clinical use and may never be so,” says Dr. Diamandis. “But thanks to support from the Terry Fox New Investigator award, we are continually challenging ourselves to think outside the box to figure out new ways to learn more about hard-to-treat cancers, which is exactly what we are doing by pursuing this research avenue.”

Study

Consumer-grade electroencephalography devices as potential tools for early detection of brain tumors

Authors

Nardin Samuel , Emily So , Ugljesa Djuric and Phedias Diamandis

Funding

This study was funded by a Terry Fox New Investigator Award to Dr. Pheadias Diamandis for Deciphering the Therapy Driven Molecular Evolution of Glioblastoma Stem Cells