Novel device can detect and analyze cancer cells from blood samples

The device is promising for a practical and cost-effective diagnosis of circulating cancer cells in the bloodstream.
Mert Erdemir
The Static Droplet Microfluidic device.
The Static Droplet Microfluidic device.

Dr. Majid Warkiani 

Scientists from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) have devised a new device that can identify and analyze cancer cells from blood samples. The development is significant for offering an alternative to invasive biopsy surgeries and monitoring treatment progress.

Early detection of cancer is of vital importance, considering the fact that it's one of the leading causes of death globally. Definitive diagnosis of cancer, especially in organs such as the liver, colon, or kidney, often requires surgery. Therefore, a non-invasive and affordable tool for detection is still needed for those with suspected cancer.

A biopsy may result in physical discomfort for patients, as well as increased surgical risks, and expenses, Professor Majid Warkiani from the UTS School of Biomedical Engineering stated in the press release.

“Managing cancer through the assessment of tumor cells in blood samples is far less invasive than taking tissue biopsies. It allows doctors to do repeat tests and monitor a patient’s response to treatment,” he added.

The Static Droplet Microfluidic device

Named "The Static Droplet Microfluidic device," the tool is capable of identifying circulating tumor cells that have separated from the primary tumor and entered the bloodstream. The device can distinguish tumor cells from normal blood cells by utilizing a unique metabolic signature of cancer.

“In the 1920s, Otto Warburg discovered that cancer cells consume a lot of glucose and so produce more lactate. Our device monitors single cells for increased lactate using pH-sensitive fluorescent dyes that detect acidification around cells,” said Professor Warkiani.

“A single tumor cell can exist among billions of blood cells in just one milliliter of blood, making it very difficult to find. The new detection technology has 38,400 chambers capable of isolating and classifying the number of metabolically active tumor cells,” he said.

After the detection of tumor cells, they can undergo genetic and molecular analysis, which can help in the identification and categorization of cancer and assist in the development of personalized treatment plans.

Helping researchers gain insight into cancer metastasis

The device is significantly promising since it detects the circulating cancer cells, which can lead to metastasis - the primary cause of 90 percent of cancer-related deaths. Examination of these cells may help researchers gain insight into the biology of cancer metastasis.

Currently used liquid biopsy methods are time-consuming, expensive, and require skilled operators, which is restrictive regarding their applicability in clinical settings.

This newly developed device is designed to be integrated into research and clinical labs without relying on expensive equipment or specialized personnel. This will allow doctors to diagnose and monitor cancer patients in a practical and cost-effective way.

The research team has filed a provisional patent for the Static Droplet Microfluidic device and plans to bring the product to market commercially.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

Study abstract:

Effective isolation and in-depth analysis of Circulating Tumour Cells (CTCs) are greatly needed in diagnosis, prognosis and monitoring of the therapeutic response of cancer patients, but have not been completely fulfilled by conventional approaches. The rarity of CTCs and the lack of reliable biomarkers to distinguish them from peripheral blood cells have remained outstanding challenges for their clinical implementation. Herein, we developed a high throughput Static Droplet Microfluidic (SDM) device with 38,400 chambers, capable of isolating and classifying the number of metabolically active CTCs in peripheral blood at single-cell resolution. Owing to the miniaturisation and compartmentalisation capability of our device, we first demonstrated the ability to precisely measure the lactate production of different types of cancer cells inside 125 pL droplets at single-cell resolution. Furthermore, we compared the metabolomic activity of leukocytes from healthy donors to cancer cells and showed the ability to differentiate them. To further prove the clinical relevance, we spiked cancer cell lines in human healthy blood and showed the possibility to detect the cancer cells from leukocytes. Lastly, we tested the workflow on 8 preclinical mammary mouse models including syngeneic 67NR (non-metastatic) and 4T1.2 (metastatic) models with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) as well as transgenic mouses (12-week-old MMTV-PyMT). The results have shown the ability to precisely distinguish metabolically active CTCs from the blood using the proposed SDM device. The workflow is simple and robust which can eliminate the need for specialised equipment and expertise required for single-cell analysis of CTCs and facilitate on-site metabolic screening of cancer cells.

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