The new capture and culture method provides a reliable way to get usable numbers of circulating tumour cells from even early-stage patients, the researchers said."It is a major game changer. This culture method gives clinicians a way to study each patient's cancer much earlier and much more frequently," said Sunitha Nagrath, assistant professor of chemical engineering at University of Michigan.

We can look for resistance to therapy and test potential therapeutics. It also moves us closer to being able to predict metastasis (spread of cancer), she said.The capture and culture process starts with a microfluidic chip device that captures cancer cells as a blood sample is pumped across it.

Nagrath, along with Nithya Ramnath, associate professor of medical oncology, used a chip on a glass slide. They covered the chip with microscopic posts that slow and trap cells, then coated it with antibodies that bind to the cancer cells.

After the cancer cells were captured on the chip, the team pumped in a mixture of collagen and Matrigel (a complex protein mixture) growth medium. They also added cancer-associated fibroblast cells that were grown in university laboratory. This created a three-dimensional environment that closely mimics the conditions inside the body of a cancer patient, the study noted.

"Primary cancer cells do not grow well on a flat surface, and like people, they need neighbours to really prosper," Nagrath said."The collagen and Matrigel provide a three-dimensional environment for the cells to grow, while the cancer-associated fibroblasts give them the neighbouring cells they need," she added. The study appeared online in the journal Oncotarget.


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