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Detecting individual cancer cells with silicon

What you catch through this chemical seive will be individual cancer cells, floating in the blood, the kind which cause a cancer to metastacize. If just one cell in a billion is a cancer, this chip set-up will detect it.

cancer cell on a chip, from Massachusetts General HospitalTake a silicon MEMS device as large as a business card.  (For more on MEMS technology click here.)

Coat it with tens of thousands of microposts, and coat the posts with antibodies which detect a molecule only found on cancer cells.

Then run blood through it. A lot of blood.

What you catch through this chemical seive will be individual cancer cells, floating in the blood, the kind which cause a cancer to metastacize. If just one cell in a billion is a cancer, this chip set-up will detect it.

It's this acute sensitivity which is the key to saving lives, because as every cancer patient knows you have to get all of it or you haven't gotten it.

Mehmet Toner, MassGeneralAll this is detailed in a Nature article by researchers at Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Mehmet Toner (left) and Daniel Haber are spokesmen for the group. (Picture from MassGeneral via Science Daily.)

Floating cells or Circulating Tumor Cells (CTCs) are the pathway by which a cancer in a lung, breast or colon can escape radiation, surgery, or even a chemical treatment which has killed the host tumor, Toner said.

In the study 116 patients had their blood tested with the new device, and it had an accuracy of 99%. Just as important, the test had no false positives. Also, the level of CTCs matched the shrinking size of a tumor during treatment.

A Center of Excellence in CTC Technologies is being set up to move the technology toward a clinical trial.