Liquid Biopsy Chip Detects Metastatic Cancer Cells in a Drop of Blood

A chip developed by mechanical engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) can trap and identify metastatic cancer cells in a small amount of blood drawn from a cancer patient. The breakthrough technology uses a simple mechanical method that has been shown to be more effective in trapping cancer cells than the microfluidic approach employed in many existing devices.

The WPI device uses antibodies attached to an array of carbon nanotubes at the bottom of a tiny well. Cancer cells settle to the bottom of the well, where they selectively bind to the antibodies based on their surface markers (unlike other devices, the chip can also trap tiny structures called exosomes produced by cancers cells). This “liquid biopsy,” described in a recent issue of the journal Nanotechnology, could become the basis of a simple lab test that could quickly detect early signs of metastasis and help physicians select treatments targeted at the specific cancer cells identified.

A cross section of one of the wells in the WPI device, showing how cancer cells sink to the bottom of
a blood sample, where they are captured by antibodies bound to carbon nanotubes. The bound cells
trigger an electrical response, which is detected by the electrodes.

Nanotechnology – Static micro-array isolation, dynamic time series classification, capture and enumeration of spiked breast cancer cells in blood: the nanotube–CTC chip

Metastasis is the process by which a cancer can spread from one organ to other parts of the body, typically by entering the bloodstream. Different types of tumors show a preference for specific organs and tissues; circulating breast cancer cells, for example, are likely to take root in bones, lungs, and the brain. The prognosis for metastatic cancer (also called stage IV cancer) is generally poor, so a technique that could detect these circulating tumor cells before they have a chance to form new colonies of tumors at distant sites could greatly increase a patient’s survival odds.

“The focus on capturing circulating tumor cells is quite new,” said Balaji Panchapakesan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at WPI and director of the Small Systems Laboratory. “It is a very difficult challenge, not unlike looking for a needle in a haystack. There are billions of red blood cells, tens of thousands of white blood cells, and, perhaps, only a small number of tumor cells floating among them. We’ve shown how those cells can be captured with high precision.”

The device developed by Panchapakesan’s team includes an array of tiny elements, each about a tenth of an inch (3 millimeters) across. Each element has a well, at the bottom of which are antibodies attached to carbon nanotubes. Each well holds a specific antibody that will bind selectively to one type of cancer cell type, based on genetic markers on its surface. By seeding elements with an assortment of antibodies, the device could be set up to capture several different cancer cells types using a single blood sample. In the lab, the researchers were able to fill a total of 170 wells using just under 0.3 fluid ounces (0.85 milliliter) of blood. Even with that small sample, they captured between one and a thousand cells per device, with a capture efficiency of between 62 and 100 percent.


We demonstrate the rapid and label-free capture of breast cancer cells spiked in blood using nanotube-antibody micro-arrays. 76-element single wall carbon nanotube arrays were manufactured using photo-lithography, metal deposition, and etching techniques. Anti-epithelial cell adhesion molecule (anti-EpCAM), Anti-human epithelial growth factor receptor 2 (anti-Her2) and non-specific IgG antibodies were functionalized to the surface of the nanotube devices using 1-pyrene-butanoic acid succinimidyl ester. Following device functionalization, blood spiked with SKBR3, MCF7 and MCF10A cells (100/1000 cells per 5 μl per device, 170 elements totaling 0.85 ml of whole blood) were adsorbed on to the nanotube device arrays. Electrical signatures were recorded from each device to screen the samples for differences in interaction (specific or non-specific) between samples and devices. A zone classification scheme enabled the classification of all 170 elements in a single map. A kernel-based statistical classifier for the ‘liquid biopsy’ was developed to create a predictive model based on dynamic time warping series to classify device electrical signals that corresponded to plain blood (control) or SKBR3 spiked blood (case) on anti-Her2 functionalized devices with ~90% sensitivity, and 90% specificity in capture of 1000 SKBR3 breast cancer cells in blood using anti-Her2 functionalized devices. Screened devices that gave positive electrical signatures were confirmed using optical/confocal microscopy to hold spiked cancer cells. Confocal microscopic analysis of devices that were classified to hold spiked blood based on their electrical signatures confirmed the presence of cancer cells through staining for DAPI (nuclei), cytokeratin (cancer cells) and CD45 (hematologic cells) with single cell sensitivity. We report 55%–100% cancer cell capture yield depending on the active device area for blood adsorption with mean of 62% (~12 500 captured off 20 000 spiked cells in 0.1 ml blood) in this first nanotube–CTC chip study.