New blood test technology has been developed that is sensitive enough to detect cancer cells, according to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Veridex (a division of Johnson & Johnson).
A press release published by Johnson & Johnson suggests the technology, which is currently in development for commercial use, “will enable [circulating tumor cells] to be used both by oncologists as a diagnostic tool for personalizing patient care, as well as by researchers to accelerate and improve the process of drug discovery and development.”
A prototype of the technology has previously been able to successfully identify a variety of cancer cells in the blood (such as breast cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer). The device is similar in size to a business card and makes use of a microfluidics chip to sift through blood samples and identify any signs of cancer.
Each microfluidics chip contains tens of thousands miniscule posts that are encased with a binding molecule. Different posts contain a different protein that is identified with different types of cancer. As such, if tumor cells are present in the blood sample, then they will stick to those posts that contain the matching binding protein. Based on this information, an identification of cancer can quickly be made.
Physicians and researchers are hopeful that the technology will not only ease diagnosis, but also assist in developing improved treatment regimens. This may be accomplished by routinely monitoring cancer cell counts to determine if a current treatment is offering positive effects. Additionally, the level of precision provided by the technology allows doctors to learn whether or not a specific tumor contains common genetic mutations that may warrant alternative treatment methods.
Though the current estimated cost of production is fairly expensive (each chip costs around $500), researchers are hopeful that the technology will one day be available on a global scale.
Ideally, the new blood tests will take a lot of the guesswork out of selecting a cancer therapy. According to Dr. Peter Ravdin, director of the Comprehensive Breast Health Center at the University of Texas Cancer Therapy & Research Center, current protocol requires doctors to “wait about three months and take an x-ray to see if the tumor has gotten smaller” once a treatment has been implemented.
With the help of Johnson & Johnson’s new technology, this wait-and-see timeline has the potential to be dramatically reduced.