Researchers at UCLA report that they have refined a method they previously developed for capturing and analyzing cancer cells that break away from patients' tumors and circulate in the blood. With the improvements to their device, which uses a Velcro-like nanoscale technology, they can now detect and isolate single cancer cells from patient blood samples for analysis.
Circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, play a crucial role in cancer metastasis, spreading from tumors to other parts of the body, where they form new tumors. When these cells are isolated from the blood early on, they can provide doctors with critical information about the type of cancer a patient has, the characteristics of the individual cancer and the potential progression of the disease. Doctors can also tell from these cells how to tailor a personalized treatment to a specific patient.
In recent years, a UCLA research team led by Hsian-Rong Tseng, an associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging and a member of both the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, has developed a "NanoVelcro" chip. When blood is passed through the chip, extremely small "hairs" - nanoscale wires or fibers coated with protein antibodies that match proteins on the surface of cancer cells - act like Velcro, traping CTCs and isolating them for analysis.
CTCs trapped by the chip also act as a "liquid biopsy" of the tumor, providing convenient access to tumor cells and earlier information about potentially fatal metastases.
Histopathology - the study of the microscopic structure of biopsy samples - is currently considered the gold standard for determining tumor status, but in the early stages of metastasis, it is often difficult to identify a biopsy site. By being able to extract viable CTCs from the blood with the NanoVelcro chip, however, doctors can perform a detailed analysis of the cancer type and the various genetic characteristics of a patient's specific cancer.
Improving the NanoVelcro device
Tseng's team now reports that they have improved the NanoVelcro chip by replacing its original non-transparent silicon nanowire substrate inside with a new type of transparent polymer nanofiber-deposited substrate, allowing the device's nanowires to better "grab" cancer cells as blood passes by them.
Tseng and his colleagues were able to pick single CTCs immobilized on the new transparent substrate by using a miniaturized laser beam knife, a technique called laser micro-dissection, or LMD.
The researchers' paper on their improvement to the chip was published online Feb. 22 in the peer-reviewed journal Angewandte Chemie and is featured on the cover of the journal's March 2013 print issue.
"This paper summarizes a major milestone in the continuous development of NanoVelcro assays pioneered by our research group," Tseng said. "We now can not only capture cancer cells from blood with high efficiency but also hand-pick single CTCs for in-depth characterization to provide crucial information that helps doctors make better decisions."
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