Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Note on Nanotech and Cancer Diagnostics

Does anyone else sense an increase in the rate at which nanotechnology is being rationally applied to cancer diagnostics? More and more, it seems, researchers are aligning new instrumentation with existing sample preparation and analysis, which should help accelerate commercialization.

In this month’s START-UP, for example, we wrote about a way to differentiate tumors cells from normal cells based on nanomechanical measurements of cell stiffness—a technique that could improve the accuracy of traditional cytology using standard tissue sample prep and may have an immediate opportunity to diagnose mesothelioma, which is not now possible using visual analysis. Now comes a report in the December 20 issue of Nature describing a nanofluidics chip-based method for identifying circulating tumor cells (CTCs).

To be able to capture and preserve the rare and fragile CTCs, the researchers, from Massachusetts General Hospital, fine-tuned the speed and force at which a blood sample passes through their CTC-chip. By so doing, they could consistently extract up to 1000 CTCs from a 10ml blood sample from a cancer patient (other methods max out at one to five CTCs, and can only do that 50% of the time).

The CTC-chip can measure whether the number of circulating tumor cells is rising or falling after therapy, to monitor drug response, and could make monitoring of blood for tumor cells a routine part of a medical exam. And because the analysis is done by placing whole blood onto the chip without the need for any labeling or processing, the chip preserves live intact cells for subsequent analysis, which could help select the best therapy based on the molecular characteristics of the tumor.

“It’s almost like a viral load measure,” says senior author Mehmet Toner of MGH’s Bioelectromechanical Systems (BioMEMS) Resource Center. “We’re always looking at ways to put cells through chips for different purposes. This application was within reach of the technology.” MGH is continuing to demonstrate the chip’s clinical utility. It has also licensed the technology to a California company, Cellpoint Diagnostics.

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