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Single Cell Proteomics

Cancer diagnosis with

a simple blood sample

A simple blood sample and the doctors are able to inform the patient whether or not she has cancer, which type it is and what the most optimal treatment is. During the next three years, researchers from Aarhus University will be working to realise this scenario.

Researchers from Aarhus University are among the world leaders when it comes to developing antibodies for cancer therapy. In the long term, this technology may have a major impact on both diagnostics and treatment. A simple blood sample that can identify the type of cancer cell is one of the examples of the potential applications of the research.

Researchers are well on the way with the development of a so-called micro-fluid chip which will make it possible to isolate cancer cells from healthy cells in a blood sample. If they succeed, this will be a breakthrough for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Associate Professor Peter Kristensen published a new method for the selection of artificial antibodies aimed at cancer cells in 2011 in the journal Nature Protocols. Today he is building on the existing results to develop a so-called fluid chip that some day will be used to screen blood in daily practice in oncology departments.

A blood sample from a cancer patient contains several bil-lions healthy cells and only a few cancer cells. The fundamental challenge is therefore to capture the sick cells, isolate them and transfer them to the laboratory so that it is possible to investigate which treatment will be required to eliminate them.

Chip will capture cancer cells
The researchers have achieved the first promising results, and they expect to have a new method ready within three years that ultimately will form the basis of a far more differentiated diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients than the one we know today.

The key to realising this promising scenario is a small chip that is able to bind the cancer cells on its surface and give the researchers access to study them closely in the laboratory. A close study of the cells can provide the doctors with information about both the type of cancer and how advanced it is and thereby make it possible to tailor optimal treatment for the individual patient.

The chip works according to a simple principle. It contains a canal with fluid through which the patient’s blood is injected. There are special antibodies on the inner surface of the canal that are able to capture the cancer cells in the sample. This aspect already functions, and the researchers are now working to generate the most specific and relevant antibodies to be added to the surface of the micro-fluidic chip.

Milestone for cancer diagnostics
Today cancer is usually diagnosed by means of a tissue sample from a tumour. The treatment often consists of an operation and chemotherapy.

In the future, this practice could look very different. With the researchers’ micro-chip, doctors will be able to diagnose cancer much more precisely and at a much earlier stage with a simple blood sample. It also has the advantage of being able to ascertain when all of the cancer cells are gone. This will make it possible to avoid unnecessary chemotherapy, explains Associate Professor Peter Kristensen: "With this new technology, it will be possible to diagnose cancer by means of a simple blood sample. As a matter of routine, doctors will be able to characterise the sick cells, design an optimal treatment and follow how the patient benefits from this treatment. Furthermore, it is much easier to avoid unnecessary chemotherapy."

In many cases today, doctors offer patients chemotherapy after a cancer operation in order to be on the safe side and avoid metastasis.

First prototype ready in a few years
The researchers expect to have a complete prototype of a fluid chip that is able to select the dangerous cancer cells from blood samples ready within just three years.

However, it will take longer before patients can benefit from the technology. First it must be optimised for different types of cancer and production costs also need to be reduced.