BREAKING AWAY: New technologies are targeting early detection of circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream through the use of amplified microscopes, high-speed image sensors and laser pulses.
Image: Courtesy of Baris Simsek, via iStockphoto.com
Cells that break away from a cancerous tumor and circulate in the bloodstream are a serious threat to helping cancer spread, or metastasize, throughout the body. Finding these circulating tumor cells (CTCs), however, can be like searching for a particular needle in a stack of needles. One milliliter of blood contains about five billion red blood cells, 10 million white blood cells and only 10 tumor cells.
Yet early cancer detection and treatment is a person's best chance of survival, And because metastasis is responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths, researchers have spent decades trying to develop blood tests that can effectively spot CTCs before they can form new tumors. The biggest challenge has been quickly examining billions of rapidly moving blood cells in a sample at a resolution high enough to identify the cancerous intruders.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, (U.C.L.A.), are developing a system that combines an optical microscope with a device for counting and studying cells, along with a high-speed image processor they say can take blur-free images of fast-moving cells, a significant step toward catching CTCs in the act. The researchers described the system last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).