Plucking cancer cells from blood via microfluidics

A new gadget can capture and culture circulating cancer cells shed by a tumor, providing important data about cancer progression and how patients respond to treatment.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
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Researchers at Harvard and Children's Hospital Boston have teamed up to create a microfluidic device that harvests and cultures circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from blood samples.

The new microfluidic device isolated these circulating tumor cells in mice with breast cancer. Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering/Harvard University

Such cells are shed by primary tumors and circulate in the bloodstream. They sometimes cause metastases, or new recurrences of cancer distant from the original tumor. As such, these cells can shed important light on how far a given cancer has progressed, how that particular patient might respond to drugs and other treatments, and more.

Reporting in the journal Lab on a Chip, the team describes its approach as combining microfluidics and micromagnetics within a device roughly the size of a credit card.

Blood flows through polymer-based channels designed to minimize mechanical stresses that could damage the cells' or alter their biochemistry. Magnetic beads coated to selectively stick to the CTCs separate them from other blood cells.

In their lab experiment on mice with breast cancer, the team's device was able to capture more than 90 percent of CTCs and keep those tumor cells intact and alive -- and then grow them in culture.

While the device was only tested for capturing and culturing breast cancer cells, it might be applied to other types of tumors as well. It could have uses well beyond cancer -- for instance, for collecting stem cells from blood samples that could be grown for use in organ repair.

The novel approach is a step toward further individualizing cancer analysis and treatment -- the focus of a lot of cancer research today.

Earlier this month, for example, researchers at Washington University unveiled a new DNA sequencing tool they say finds mutations at the root of any given patient's tumor and helps map the specific genetic evolution of that person's cancer.

That particular tool, tested on hundreds of cancer patients, is already resulting in classifying tumors by genetic makeup rather than location in the body. So, too, does the new microfluidic device out of Harvard help researchers identify mutations specific to the patient.