March 09, 2008
Miniature Cell Sorter For Cancer Detection 5 Years Away?

A cheap small scale cell sorter for disease diagnosis might be 5 years away from clinical use.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Capitalizing on a cell’s ability to roll along a surface, MIT researchers have developed a simple, inexpensive system to sort different kinds of cells — a process that could result in low-cost tools to test for diseases such as cancer, even in remote locations.

A cheap, small, and easy-to-operate device for detecting cancers would allow more frequent, cheaper, and earlier stage cancer detection. One can imagine such devices available in supermarkets or drug stores. A small blood sample could tell you pretty quickly whether to seek out a doctor. The resulting earlier stage diagnoses will substantially up cure rates.

Notice this result was published in Nano Letters. Advances in biotechnology are increasingly coming from working with very small scale materials and devices. Smaller devices can be orders of magnitude cheaper, faster, reliable, and sensitive.

Rohit Karnik, an MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of a paper on the new finding appearing this week in the journal Nano Letters, said the cell-sorting method was minimally invasive and highly innovative.

“It’s a new discovery,” Karnik said. “Nobody has ever done anything like this before.”

The method relies on the way cells sometimes interact with a surface (such as the wall of a blood vessel) by rolling along it. In the new device, a surface is coated with lines of a material that interacts with the cells, making it seem sticky to specific types of cells. The sticky lines are oriented diagonally to the flow of cell-containing fluid passing over the surface, so as certain kinds of cells respond to the coating they are nudged to one side, allowing them to be separated out.

The device will take 2 years to become usable as a lab research tool and 5 years before use in clinical tests.

Now that the basic principle has been harnessed in the lab, Karnik estimates it may take up to two years to develop into a standard device that could be used for laboratory research purposes. Because of the need for extensive testing, development of a device for clinical use could take about five years, he estimates.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 March 09 03:02 PM  Biotech Assay Tools

HellKaiserRyo said at March 9, 2008 5:36 PM:

For all those libertarians out there:

"The work was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health."

Randall Parker said at March 9, 2008 6:23 PM:


And the innovation rate of big pharma has slowed to a crawl. Part of that is the FDA's fault. But part isn't. Big pharma isn't selling great stuff in less regulated countries either.

Ned said at March 10, 2008 6:57 AM:

Sounds like it's a long way from being ready for prime time. How do you know it's a cancer cell? And what kind of cancer? And even if you know what kind, what are you going to do about it if there's no clinical evidence of cancer? I think I'll wait for the movie.

Brock said at March 10, 2008 10:42 AM:

The thing I'm not clear on is: How do you get cancer cells to the device to be sorted? How does this detect cancer of anything except the blood? If you've got pancreatic cancer I don't think too many cancerous pancrease cells are going to turn up in your average blood sample.

Jonathan said at March 10, 2008 2:58 PM:

Many cancer cells can be identified by the surface protein signatures of their cell walls. I am assuming that this is how they would identify likely candidates of cancer. Similar screening methods are being explored by analyzing a person's breath. Ned, I think you underestimate the importance of early diagnosis in cancer treatment. To many people don't know that they have cancer until 3rd stage or later. At this point it's often to late. Wait for the movie? That just might kill you.

Brock raises a good question here. I am assuming that this test would only be useful for detecting cancers that are metastasizing from the original tumor site. This test method may not be as useful for very early prevention as some other methods being explored (such as metabolite protein signatures).

Randall Parker said at March 11, 2008 5:56 PM:

Jonathan, Brock,

Large numbers of cancer cells enter the blood stream and don't manage to survive anywhere else. Most cancer cells are quite sick and they have a hard time surviving on their own. They don't all have the mutations they need to survive elsewhere. So we can probably detect most cancers in the blood stream before they metastasize.

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