Chip technology to give faster cancer diagnosis

Chip technology to give faster cancer diagnosis

In the same week that the World Health Organisation announced that hot chips give you cancer, a Harvard professor has unveiled a new chip - of the digital kind - that can diagnose cancers quickly and painlessly from a blood sample.

The development could spell the end of biopsies and diagnose more cancers at an early and treatable stage.

The chip - called a microfluidic device - filters and sorts blood into its cell types. Red blood cells and platelets are hived off, then white blood cells are filtered out using tiny magnetic beads, leaving any cancer cells that have been floating in the system.

The research, published last week in Science Translational Medicine, is an advance on a chip developed in 2007 by biomedical engineer Mehmet Toner, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Professor Toner's team devised a chip that filtered out floating cancer cells - known as circulating tumour cells - that had broken away from a tumour and threatened to spread cancer to other parts of the body, the process known as metastasis. The problem was the device was limited in the kind of cancers it could detect, because it relied on trapping cells coated with a particular protein that is absent or in reduced concentration on some breast cancers and melanoma.

The original 2007 chip was about the size of a microscope slide and made up of nearly 80,000 micro-channels, each smaller than a strand of human hair. The new model is made up of multiple chips, can process blood samples faster, can detect a greater range of cancers - perhaps nearly all known types - and is able to preserve any circulating tumour cells intact for analysis.

It offers hope to cancer sufferers whose tumours are in the early stages of spreading. Metastasis is little-understood, because cancer cells tend to evolve as they spread and take root.

Study co-author Daniel Haber, of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Centre, said: ''The study of cancer metastasis has been limited by the inability to quickly and reliably isolate tumour cells in transit in the blood. This new approach is likely to be a game-changer in the field.''

Most Viewed in Technology


Morning & Afternoon Newsletter

Delivered Mon–Fri.

By signing up you accept our privacy policy and conditions of use