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New diagnostic tool uses gravity to separate cancer cells from other biological matter


Engineers at Johns Hopkins have developed a technique that can detect cancer cells in the bloodstream before they've had a chance to spread to organs and tissue elsewhere in the body.


The “microfluidic system” uses natural forces, like gravity, to sort microscopic particles and tiny bits of biological matter, including circulating tumor cells, into discrete categories, according to a press release from the university's Institute for NanoBioTechnology.


The device, which sorts whole blood into its components, was developed by Jorge A. Bernate, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering,


Bernate, who has filed a provisional patent for the device, says the ultimate goal is to develop a simple tool that can doctors can use during routine checkups. “It could be used to detect the handful of circulating tumor cells that have managed to survive among billions of normal blood cells,” he said. “This could save millions of lives.”


The device could be a promising development for mesothelioma patients, whose prognosis is dim largely because the disease is so difficult to diagnose. Mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure, can remain dormant in the body for as long as 50 years. Symptoms do not typically appear until the disease has reached an advanced stage, at which point treatment will have little effect.


Bernate explained that particles and cells are suspended inside the device and flow along a “highway” with speed-bump-like obstacles positioned diagonally along the path. The heavier particles have a harder time getting over the obstacles, forcing them to change course and travel diagonally along the length of the obstacle.


“After the particles cross this section of the ‘highway,’ they end up in different ‘lanes’ and can take different ‘exits,’ which allows for their continuous separation,” Bernate said.


Cancer cells displaced by the ramps can be continuously isolated from other cells in the sample, making it easier for clinicians to detect.


The research, co-authored by German Drazer, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, appeared in the May 25 online issue of Physical Review Letters.



About The Author

Mesothelioma Options Help Center staff writer Brian Wallstin is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Concord, N.H. Brian previously worked at the Missourian from 2003-2009 as a columnist and city editor, and served as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Prior to that, he worked as a staff reporter at the Houston Press.