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Capturing Circulating Tumor Cells with a Microchip

A microchip can capture and take snapshots of rare cancer cells circulating in the blood, which may provide a way to monitor patients after tumor removal and could eventually guide treatment, reports a new study in Science Translational Medicine. These circulating tumor cells, though small in number, might be an important marker that can help doctors quickly spot any changes in cancer progression and determine whether or not a particular treatment is working.


Arrays of different circulating tumor cells captured on microposts. | Image courtesy of S. Stott; © Science/AAAS
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Cancer patients are often dealt a devastating blow when their previously removed solid tumor aggressively returns and spreads to multiple locations in the body. The presence of cells that have drifted off a tumor like strewn seeds and circulate in the blood with the potential for growth into new tumors might tip off doctors that a cancer has the potential to spread to other parts of the body.


In new research involving a small cohort of individuals with and without prostate cancer, Shannon Stott of Harvard Medical School and colleagues detected and counted circulating tumor cells by coupling an imaging system to a microfluidic cell-capture device.

Circulating tumor cells express a unique surface protein that makes them stand out in the crowd of other cells in the blood. Using an antibody that sticks to this protein allows the microfluidic device to capture the cells, which are subsequently stained with other highlighting antibodies that enable the researchers to pinpoint circulating tumor cells in patients whose cancer has not yet spread to other parts of the body.

The researchers also collected circulating tumor cells from patients with prostate cancer and monitored the cells before and after surgery. They found that in some patients circulating tumor cells disappeared rapidly after surgery, while in others the cells persisted months after.

“Further studies are needed to determine whether the differences seen in our study actually reflect which tumors are more invasive, in the case of the persistence/disappearance observation, or reveal important biological properties of the tumor,” says Stott. “We are also working to create a ‘plug-and-play’ version of the machine that will be easy to use clinically, exploring options for large-scale production of the CTC-chip, and continuing to optimize the device to increase its speed and efficiency.”

Science Translational Medicine, the newest journal from Science, focuses on outstanding science with promise to improve human health and quality-of-life. Under the direction of Elias Zerhouni, the chief scientific adviser and former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Editor Katrina Kelner, the journal aims to publish groundbreaking research from basic biology that will help make significant advances in medical care, along with commentary on the latest issues in translational medicine.