Novel Wearable Captures Cancer Cells Directly from Blood

The device tested in dogs allows for 3.5 times more cancer cells to be captured than in conventional biopsies.

Getting biopsies are a burden for cancer patients and doctors alike. Now, a new prototype wearable device may just get rid of biopsies altogether. The novel wearable, tested in animals, can capture live cancer cells directly from a patient's blood.

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Better than biopsies

"Nobody wants to have a biopsy. If we could get enough cancer cells from the blood, we could use them to learn about the tumor biology and direct care for the patients. That's the excitement of why we're doing this," said Daniel F. Hayes, M.D., the Stuart B. Padnos Professor of Breast Cancer Research at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center and senior author on the paper in Nature Communications.

Tumors are capable of releasing more than 1,000 cancer cells into the bloodstream in a minute, but current methods of capturing these cells are generally unsuccessful. All too often, blood draws come back with no cancer cells, and a typical sample contains no more than 10 of these cells.

However, the new device could be used to continuously collect cancer cells leading to a much higher concentration of captured cells. In tests done on animals, the wearable collected 3.5 times as many cancer cells per milliliter of blood as was produced by samples collected by blood draw.

"It's the difference between having a security camera that takes a snapshot of a door every five minutes or takes a video. If an intruder enters between the snapshots, you wouldn't know about it," says Sunitha Nagrath, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical engineering at U-M, who led the development of the device.

Targeting cancer cells in the blood

But the benefits of the wearable are not just in the number of cells it can capture. Targeting cancer cells in the blood is also key to planning treatment.

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Most cancer cells can not survive in the blood, but those who do are called metastases. Metastases are the real deadly cells, unlike the original tumor. Being able to capture them from the blood would result in key data for treating the disease compared to what is produced by conventional biopsies.

In order to test the device, the researchers injected adult dogs with human cancer cells. The dogs were connected to the device, which screened between 1-2 percent of their blood while blood was drawn every 20 minutes. 

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The team now hopes to increase the blood processing rate and Hayes believes the device could begin human trials in three to five years. If successful, the novel wearable could be used to help improve human cancer treatments.

"This is the epitome of precision medicine, which is so exciting in the field of oncology right now," said Hayes.