The researchers found they could use a fast lab test called flow cytometry to determine the level of expression of molecular markers of breast cancer in four established breast cancer cell lines. Doctors routinely examine breast cancer tissue for these markers to characterize tumor type and determine prognosis using standard techniques. But these tests may take weeks to produce results.
In flow cytometry, cells pass in a narrow stream through a laser beam. Molecular markers can be labeled with florescent tags and then detected as they pass through the beam.
"Targeted cancer therapies, therapies that exploit the particular weaknesses of different types of cancer, show enormous promise for the next generation of cancer treatment," said Dr. Rafael Nunez, UIC assistant professor in medicine and principle investigator in the study. "It's not practical to wait weeks after breast cancer surgery, for example, to decide how aggressive follow-up treatment should be. The effectiveness of many therapies depends on timing."
Different tumor cells are marked by the over- or under-expression of particular molecules. It is these differences that can be exploited to determine the prognosis, or likely course, of the disease, and to choose the best treatment option.
"Measuring prognostic markers in breast cancer cells opens up possibilities for broad applications of this technology to tissue samples obtained from needle or surgical biopsies of patients with suspected breast cancers," said Nunez. "Furthermore, it's possible this approach may also be applied to a broad range of other solid tumors, including colon, ovarian, prostate and gastric cancer, to name a few."
Nunez envisions a time when this technology would come packaged in kit form, readily available and easily used in almost any laboratory. "If this technique fulfills its promise, one day soon a lab would receive a tumor tissue sample shipped to us in the morning and have the sample analyzed and typed in time to ship back overnight to the physician making the follow-up treatment decisions," said Nunez. "What now takes weeks or months, with results sometimes coming too late to be useful in treatment decisions, could be done in a matter of hours for a fraction of the current cost."