A microfluidics chip that captures rare cancer cells in blood tests is headed for commercialization.

A microfluidics chip designed to capture cancer cells circulating in the blood is taking a step closer to clinical use, thanks to a new partnership between Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Veridex, a diagnostics company owned by Johnson and Johnson. According to a release from the company, the technology “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.”

* In 2007, the researchers first showed that the chip could capture these rare cells–which make up just one in a billion cells in blood–in high enough numbers to analyze them for molecular markers.

Early detection of cancer will save lives as treatment is more effective for early stage cancer. Also, it can be 100 times cheaper to treat early stage versus later stage cancer. The Canary Foundation goal is to deliver early detection tests for solid tumor cancers by 2015. Cancer treatment cost $89 billion in the U.S. in 2007.

Early cancer detection has proven value: since 1950, there has been a 70 percent decline in cervical-cancer incidence and deaths in developed countries5 thanks to a simple screening test, the Pap test ($8 test). Effective early cancer tests could save over $50 billion per year in medical costs and 400,000 lives each year in the USA and 5 million lives around the world. 7 million people die from cancer each year worldwide.

* Toner’s group recently developed a new version of the chip that can capture even more cells. The inner surface of the device has a herringbone design, which generates a vortex in the blood flowing through it. This mixing brings the cells in greater contact with antibodies on the surface of the chip. According to research published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this chip could detect isolated clusters of tumor cells, which may help shed light on cancer’s ability to spread, or metastasize, from its initial birthplace.

While Veridex already sells a diagnostic test that can count circulating tumor cells, the test does not analyze the cells for specific molecular markers, similar to the tests pathologists now perform on tumor tissue collected during surgery or from needle biopsies. For example, researchers have shown the device can isolate enough cells to detect a specific mutation in a gene for the epidermal growth factor receptor.

Cancer Death Statistics from 2000

An analysis of cancer statistics by tumor type by gender and developed versus less developed countries.

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