The early stages of metastasis, or the spread of cancer cells from the primary tumor site, are incredibly difficult to detect by analyzing blood samples. For a 10 milliliter sample, this would mean positively identifying a mere handful of cancerous cells amidst 50 million blood cells.
A. Fatih Sarioglu and collaborating investigators at the Georgia Institute of Technology are turning to 3D-printing technology for solutions — using cell traps to narrow the analysis pool, making cancer cells considerably easier to spot.
In research published in the journal Lab on a Chip, the team from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) designed devices with intricate layers of microfluidic channels, through which a patient’s blood sample would flow through. The architecture of the fluid path extracts larger cells (such as white blood cells and cancer cells), letting smaller red blood cells continue to flow through.
Analyzing just the subpopulation of trapped cells makes the cancer diagnostic process significantly simpler, faster and cheaper. The instrument is also designed to be gentle enough to keep any captured tumor cells completely intact — a critical design feature to maximize diagnostic accuracy.
As tumors advance, they can begin to migrate to distant sites in the body by invading into surrounding tissue structures, traveling with the flow of the lymphatic system, or via the blood circulation. Wide-spread tumor metastasis dramatically decreases a patient’s chance of survival, making early warnings potentially life-saving.
For instance, just over 50 percent of patients with lung cancer are expected to live five years past diagnosis. At later stages of cancer, metastasis causes this rate to drop to just 5 percent.
To evaluate the effectiveness of their new technology, the researchers spiked healthy blood samples with known numbers of cancer cells and ran the samples through the device. Results indicated that the device was highly effective, having snared 90 percent of tumor cells.
The device was also found to be successful in catching circulating cancer cells in small amounts of blood drawn from patients with metastatic prostate cancer.
Future iterations of the device will focus on further simplifying its design and boosting its performance and manufacturability.
It is anticipated that commercializing this technology would be a big step up for the future of personalized medicine by allowing clinicians to detect red flags and execute treatment strategies against metastatic cancer earlier and more effectively.
Photo credit: Allison Carter, Georgia Tech