Researchers refine 'NanoVelcro' device to grab single cancer cells from blood

Researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), report that they have refined a method they previously developed for capturing and analysing cancer cells that break away from patients' tumours and circulate in the blood. With the improvements to their device, which uses a Velcro-like nanoscale technology, they can now detect and isolate single cancer cells from patient blood samples for analysis.

Circulating tumour cells, or CTCs, play a crucial role in cancer metastasis, spreading from tumours to other parts of the body, where they form new tumours. When these cells are isolated from the blood early on, they can provide doctors with critical information about the type of cancer a patient has, the characteristics of the individual cancer and the potential progression of the disease. Doctors can also tell from these cells how to tailor a personalized treatment to a specific patient.

In recent years, a UCLA research team led by Hsian-Rong Tseng, an associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging and a member of both the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Centre, has developed a "NanoVelcro" chip.

When blood is passed through the chip, extremely small "hairs" - nanoscale wires or fibres coated with protein anti-bodies that match proteins on the surface of cancer cells - act like Velcro, traping CTCs and isolating them for analysis.

CTCs trapped by the chip also act as a "liquid biopsy" of the tumour, providing convenient access to tumour cells and earlier information about potentially fatal metastases.

Histopathology - the study of the microscopic structure of biopsy samples - is currently considered the gold standard for determining tumour status, but in the early stages of metastasis, it is often difficult to identify a biopsy site. By being able to extract viable CTCs from the blood with the NanoVelcro chip, however, doctors can perform a detailed analysis of the cancer type and the various genetic characteristics of a patient's specific cancer.