Microfiltration and its uses in detecting circulating tumor cells (CTCs)

BY ROHAN BADLANI

The detection of circulating tumor cells (CTC) is known to be one of the prime indicators of the presence and growth of cancer. However, the difficulty lies in being able to find a very small number of CTCs on the background of billions of blood cells in circulation. In their ongoing research with circulating tumor cells at the Dr. John T. MacDonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute at the University of Miami (BioNIUM), Dr. Richard Cote, Dr. Ram Datar and associates have developed a novel parylene membrane filter-based portable microdevice that has the ability to detect the presence of circulating tumor cells in human peripheral blood in a timely and efficient manner. The microfilter uses uniformly distributed pores to separate the tumor cells from the rest of the blood in a sample. This investigation involved CTCs spiked into blood samples from healthy donors and resulted in the successful detection of the presence of CTCs using the microdevice.

In a paper published in October 2010, the CTC capture device was compared to the only FDA-cleared CellSearch System, created by Johnson and Johnson. The experiment analyzed 58 samples from four types of cancer patients. The technology created by Johnson and Johnson used magnetic capture technology to isolate the cells, whereas the microfiltration technology created at the University of Miami used size-based filtration. It was shown that the microfiltration was more effective than the magnetic capture method. The use of size-based filtration also is more cost-effective compared to magnetic capture. In addition, the use of the microfilter saves time; while magnetic capture takes over two hours to complete, the microfiltration only takes eight minutes.

Today, a large number of the current investigations into the treatment and identification of cancer use molecular analytic procedures such as ELISA, PCR and gel electrophoresis, along with other assays that can be quite time-consuming and labor-intensive. The use of microfiltration technology is able to circumvent this process, ultimately resulting in a more efficient way to identify cancer within a patient. The use of a microfiltration device allows the researcher to detect the presence of CTCs in the blood on the basis of CTC size difference. Due to their larger size, CTCs do pass through the filter.

The interdisciplinary nature of this research brings with it the challenge of bringing together an eclectic group of trained professionals. Ranging from physicians to engineers, this operation suffers from a technical language barrier between the fields of technology and biomedical sciences. In order to promote a mutual understanding in pursuit of a common goal, these researchers must teach each other the terminology and thought processes associated with their respective areas of knowledge.

In the past 10 years, the laboratory has received a large amount of its funding from agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defence (DoD). “Now the scale of the research is larger and increasingly competitive, while the funding available continues to decrease,” Datar explained. “which makes moving forward ever more challenging, but fuels innovation.”

This emerging area of research offers various opportunities for undergraduate students who would like to get involved in a field of research that is of interest to them. Many organizations encourage undergraduate students to become actively involved in a variety of thought-provoking research studies as early as possible, and invites undergraduate students to take part in ongoing research projects during the summer. “This is the right time and age where students can do well in multidisciplinary projects,” Datar said. “They are not just ingrained into one slot.” He advised undergraduate students to take this time in their lives to explore other areas of study and expand their knowledge about topics in which they are interested. Datar also encourages students to get involved in paid internship opportunities, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), particularly focusing on research for undergraduates.

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