Scientists develop wearable device that could offer biopsy alternative

In animal tests, the device trapped 3.5 times as many cancer cells per millilitre of blood as it did running blood draw samples. (AFPrelaxnews pic)

Doctors and engineers at the University of Michigan, USA, have developed a wearable device that can detect cancer by capturing and analysing cells present in the blood.

Biopsy is currently the most accurate means of diagnosing cancer. But, as Daniel F Hayes MD – senior author of the paper, published in Nature Communications – explains, “nobody wants to have a biopsy.”

A biopsy involves taking a sample of tissue for analysis under a microscope.

Most often, such procedures are carried out by needle, endoscopy or surgical incisions. The procedures may be unpleasant and often uncomfortable for patients.

In this latest research, Dr Hayes and his team explored a less invasive method of detecting cancer by studying the cells circulating in the blood.

Cancerous tumours release cells into the blood – more than 1,000 in just one minute – which means that it is theoretically possible to detect the presence of cancer by taking and analysing a sample of blood.

However, this technique is insufficient, since some blood draws come back with no cancer cells, even in patients with advanced cancer.

A promising new technique

The scientists developed a wearable device that is effectively able to “filter” the blood in order to detect cancer cells.

The device is able to continuously capture cancer cells in the blood directly from a patient’s vein, thus screening much larger volumes of blood than with a single draw.

“It’s the difference between having a security camera that takes a snapshot of a door every five minutes or takes a video. If an intruder enters between the snapshots, you wouldn’t know about it,” explains Sunitha Nagrath, PhD, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, who led the development of the device.

The device has currently only been tested in dogs, where it trapped 3.5 times as many cancer cells per millilitre of blood as it did running samples collected by blood draw.

Dr Hayes hopes that the device will begin human trials in three to five years.

As well as offering an alternative to biopsies, the MD explains that the device could also provide better information for planning treatments, by allowing doctors to see if the cancer cells are making the molecules that serve as targets for many newer cancer drugs.