Quick, cheap cancer blood test is not far away

Finding many cancers – particularly liver, colon and kidney  – requires an invasive surgical biopsy , but a device made by Australian researchers could change this, by detecting cancer cells in blood samples.

“Managing cancer through the assessment of tumour cells in blood samples is far less invasive than taking tissue biopsies. It allows doctors to do repeat tests and monitor a patient’s response to treatment,” says Professor Majid Warkiani, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney School of Biomedical Engineering, and senior author on a paper describing the device, published in Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

So-called “liquid biopsies”, which use blood or other bodily fluids to spot cancer, have been in development for a decade, but they’re currently expensive, and time-consuming , which means they’re not widely used.

A hand-sized device – called the Static Droplet Microfluidic Device – could be much quicker and cheaper.

It zeroes in on a specific type of cancer cell: a circulating tumour cell, or CTC. These cells appear in the blood of people with tumours, and they’re a precursor to deadly metastasis, but they’re hard to isolate and distinguish from blood cells. One way to do it is through a technique called metabolomics.

“We built a device that could isolate these individual cells, keep them alive, give them sugar to consume, and see if the metabolomics is the same or not,” says Warkiani.

The hand-sized device needs only a few microlitres of blood – that’s the “microfluidics” part – to test. (A microlitre is a millionth of a litre.) The device filters the blood into 38,400 tiny chambers, each of which can help to isolate and classify CTCs.

Once the device has isolated the cancer cells, they can be tested further to help diagnose the cancer.

The researchers have filed a patent for the device.

Warkiani says that there is similar technology filtering through clinical trials at the moment, meaning their device won’t take long to hit the market once commercialised.

“We will tag along – right now we have a technology that works better, we already have the proof of concept,” he says.

“Let’s make it a widespread use across their clinics and hospitals everywhere in the world.”

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