Department of Biomedical Engineering
Ninety percent of deaths from cancer are caused not by the original tumor but by metastasis, which is the spread of cancer to other parts of the body via cells transported in the blood or lymph system. In the Department of Biomedical Engineering, through the rapidly changing field of medical nanotechnology, we are developing a blood test that will find these cancer cells before they spread. Traditional cancer treatment often includes shrinking tumors, which also lowers the number of cancer cells that could separate and be carried throughout the body. This kind of therapy is critical, because the number of circulating cancer cells gives doctors an idea of how well a cancer treatment will work – the smaller the number of cancer cells, the greater the likelihood of successful treatment.
But detecting a wandering cancer cell is like finding a needle in a haystack: In a typical blood sample (1½ teaspoons, or 7.5 milliliters of drawn blood), we are looking for just 5 out of 40 billion cells! For the patient’s sake, we cannot afford to miss a single one. This is where our research and our newly developed blood test can make a difference. Using a “magnetic separation” technique, we can make either tumor cells or normal blood cells magnetic, allowing us to draw either type out with a magnet and count them. We are excited not only because our research can be applied to many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, colorectal and skin cancers, but also because we can learn much more information in far less time while using a smaller blood sample. This new test will help customize patient care by showing whether cancer treatment is still working over 12 or 24 months, a measurement that was not possible even 15 years ago.
Donor support is needed to bridge the gap between funding available for basic research, which is completed; what is needed now is development – seeing how well our blood test works in people, that is, taking the blood test to clinical trials. We believe that we are on the cusp of providing a life-saving test that may spare thousands of patients from hearing the words “your cancer has spread.”
Summary: Drs. Fleischman and Zborowski have developed a technology that can separate cancer cells from normal healthy blood cells.