Handheld diagnostic test for cancer cells and HIV

Making microfluidic devices that use carbon nanotubes to collect cancer cells or viruses.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Normally, testing for cancerous cells floating in the blood has been pretty difficult. When cancer cells break away from the original tumor site, it's hard to detect them in the body. Regular blood cells are so abundant, that the small number of cancer cells go unnoticed.

But imagine if you had a dime-sized device that can test blood to see if cancer cells have spread from its original site to other parts of the body. MIT researchers have a small prototype that can do just that.

By enlisting the help of carbon nanotubes, researchers figured out the best way to attract cancer cells in a device. Since carbon nanotubes are cylindrical in nature, cancer cells would get stuck to the nanotubes as liquid flowed the channels. It worked because molecule in question were left behind as the rest of the sample flowed through the microfluidic device.

MIT professor Brian Wardle said in a statement:

“Of all deaths from cancer, 90 percent are not the result of cancer at the primary site. They’re from tumors that spread from the original site."

By changing the spacing of the nanotubes and designing it with specific antibodies, the device can be tweeked to test for difference molecules.

It's feasible to think this cancer-detecting machine could also be designed to identify viruses such as HIV.

Currently, the device is being tested in a few hospitals. Researchers hope a version of their device could be sold commercially in a couple of years. Being able to filter specific viruses or types of cells is key to making the devices useful in the clinical setting.

This device is an upgrade on the four-year old prototype. This time around, it works eight times better. After a major design change, the researchers made the device with inherently more surface area to make it more efficient. The researchers realized that porous carbon nanotubes work better than silicon solid tubes.

As microfluidic devices become more accurate and sensors become more ubiquitous in healthcare, monitoring your well-being could become that much more personal. Portable devices could be particularly useful in the developing world, where traditional medical testing services would otherwise fail to deliver cheap and fast results.

In the future, sensors could monitor biomarkers in the blood to identify signs of a heart attack, detect cancer and measure glucose levels to manage diabetes. Michael Cima at MIT tells New Scientist that, “with this, we are going to bring the laboratory to the patient.”

Devices will keep getting smarter. Handheld diagnostic tools and sensors will help bring this era of personalized medicine out of the research lab and into the marketplace - and someday, bring the technology into your body.

Photo: Brian Wardle

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