Using Microchips to Process a Cancer Diagnosis

Personalized cancer care has been growing by leaps and bounds in the past few years. Frequently, new technologies and treatments are being developed to help oncologists sub-classify patients beyond general types of cancer and provide improved treatment on a case-by-case basis.

One of the newest technologies currently in development is a class of products known as microfluidics microchips. Such computer chips allow scientists to capture rare types of tumor cells and isolate minute gene expressions that could potentially help dictate viable treatment options.

Presently, such microchips are in clinical trials as a treatment aid for prostate cancer. The study, being conducted at the Genitourinary Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, will consist of prostate cancer patients that have responded poorly to other forms of treatment.

Through microchip analysis, a comprehensive genetic profile will be provided for each participant. As Martin Fleisher, chairman of Department of Clinical Studies at Sloan-Kettering, suggests: the goal of this gene analysis is to determine which “genes are over-expressed and whether or not [the participants] would be candidates for certain types of targeted therapies that would beat down their cancer.”

Gene profiling is currently used to dictate treatment regiments for several cancers. For example, Herceptin is typically only used on breast cancer patients that have a specific protein present in their tumors.

However, prior to microfluidics, doctors were required to obtain a biopsy to obtain a proper gene profile. Such a luxury is not always available. As a workaround, scientists have longed for a reliable way to identify and isolate the low concentrations of tumor cells present in the bloodstream. Sloan-Kettering’s microchip seems to be the solution.

The microfluid chip Sloan-Kettering is employing for the study is manufactured by Fluidigm. The technology is remarkably advanced, with the ability to filter DNA from each cell into one of 96 microscopic channels. Reagents entering from the opposite side combine with the cells to create 9,000 simultaneous reactions. These reactions indicate differences in gene expression, and serve to effectively profile cancer cells.

For the prostate cancer study, researchers will analyze approximately 30 key genes in each patient. Expression of these genes, many related to testosterone production and cell signaling, have previously responded well to dasatinib in animal models. Dasatinib is a chemotherapy drug that is currently used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Once the most promising candidates for the drug have been identified through microfluidics, clinical trials will be initiated to test the predictive effectiveness of this burgeoning technology.