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Use of Gravity to Identify Circulating Tumor Cells Could Lead to Early Detection of Mesothelioma

The key to increased life expectancy when battling rare and extremely aggressive cancers is early detection. Unfortunately, there is no effective screening method for mesothelioma, one of the most aggressive cancers, diagnosed in close to 3,000 Americans each year.  However, researchers at Johns Hopkins report that they have found “an easy way to use gravity or simple forces” to identify circulating tumor cells (CTC), which could lead to an early cancer diagnosis.

Patients with mesothelioma, known to be caused by asbestos exposure, often have symptoms such as a persistent cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and wheezing, that are similar to many other respiratory illnesses.  When a patient presents with these symptoms, doctors often first treat the patient for a respiratory infection before turning to testing for cancer.  By the time the cancer is diagnosed, it is in an advanced stage causing life-threatening complications.

However, if doctors had an effective, non-invasive way to detect cancer, such as through a blood test, mesothelioma patients may be diagnosed earlier and their chance of survival would increase.  Stopping tumor growth and preventing metastasis is especially critical for mesothelioma and lung cancer where the diseases are highly aggressive.  This can only be achieved if the cancer is detected early.

Through the use of the “microfluidic device,” that can sort particles, cells or other tiny matter by physical means such as gravity, Johns Hopkins researchers were able to sort the microscopic cells into discrete categories, such as weight and size. When this process is developed into a diagnostic tool, cancer cells could be detected, and the patient treated, before the cancer has a chance to metastasize.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a simple device that can be used in routine checkups by health care providers,” said doctoral student Bernate, who is lead author on the paper. “It could be used to detect the handful of circulating tumor cells that have managed to survive among billions of normal blood cells. This could save millions of lives.” 

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have also reported that they have developed an effective test for identifying circulating tumor cells in cancer patients.  CTC tests, mainly still under development, are touted as non-invasive tools useful for early detection or treatment monitoring for cancers including lung cancer and mesothelioma. 

The findings were reported in the May 25 online issue of Physical Review Letters.

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Nancy Meredith is a blog and web content writer with more than 20 years of professional experience in the Information Technology industry. She has been writing about Mesothelioma for 7 years. Follow Nancy on Google+

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