Maze-like chip helps spot aggressive cancer cells

Jon Fingas
It's difficult to spot cancer cells -- just one in a billion blood cells are cancerous.

It's difficult to spot cancer cells -- just one in a billion blood cells are cancerous. How do you isolate them to know the trouble someone is facing and eventually treat it? By drawing the kind of mazes you enjoyed as a kid, apparently. Researchers have developed a microfluidic chip that uses a circular labyrinth to separate cancer cells from the rest of your bloodstream and spot the stem-like cells that will aggressively spread that cancer. Ultimately, it's a creative use of physics. The curves tend to push larger cancer cells forward (smaller regular cells cling to the walls), while the corners mix things up and put white blood cells in an ideal position.

And importantly, it's much faster than conventional methods, which use markers and traps to gradually bind cancer cells. Blood flows quickly, so you're only waiting minutes to pinpoint the cancer. And if you need better results than you got the first time around, you just have to add another chip.

The technique could be the key to a new wave of cancer treatments. If you can single out aggressive cancer cells, you'll have a better sense of how to treat the cancer in question. In an ongoing breast cancer trial, for example, it'll show whether or not blocking a immune signalling molecule might reduce the number of stem-like cancer cells. This won't necessarily lead to cures for stubborn cancers, but it could offer hope in situations where a cancer would otherwise be impossible to stop.

University of Michigan, Cell