Figuring out whether a strange mass of cells in the body is malignant may soon no longer involve intrusive and painful tissue biopsies, thanks to researchers at Australia’s University of Technology.
They owe their success to the blossoming field of microfluidics that puts a “lab on a computer chip” to analyze tiny amounts of body fluids and suss out what’s in them.
Their new chip has 38,400 separate compartments capable of spotting “circulating tumor cells” that have split off from early-stage cancer masses and are floating in the bloodstream.
Cancer cells consume a lot of glucose. As a result, they excrete a lot of lactate, which is acidic.
The new lab chip uses fluorescent dyes to check cells’ pH levels—a measure of whether they’re acidic or alkaline—and flag cells that are producing unusual amounts of lactate.
Based on successful initial tests, the researchers are designing a device for commercial use that will be simple enough that medical technicians can operate it as part of their routine duties.
TRENDPOST: Circulating tumor cells are the early seeds of metastasis, enabling cancer in one place to take root elsewhere in the body. Metastasis is estimated to cause more than 500,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone.
The new device can spot not only metastasis, but should also be able to give an early warning of cancer that otherwise might go undetected until much later.