Carbon-Nanotube Cancer Detector Can Catch Even a Single Marauding, Malignant Cell

By Patrick Morgan | March 31, 2011 7:56 am

What’s the News: Scientists have developed a new carbon nanotube device (pictured above) that’s capable of detecting single cancer cells. Once implemented in hospitals, this microfluidic device could let doctors more efficiently detect the spread of cancer, especially in developing countries that don’t have the money for more sophisticated diagnostic equipment. Any improvement in detecting cancer’s spread is important, says MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Brian Wardle, because “of all deaths from cancer, 90 percent are … from tumors that spread from the original site.”

What’s the Context:

  • The researchers’ original microfluidic device from four years ago featured tens of thousands of microscopic silicon posts coated with tumor-sticking antibodies: when cancer cells bumped into the posts, they’d stick. But if cancer cells didn’t bump into a silicon post, they’d go undetected. The group says their new version is eight times better.
  • When cancer cells migrate, there are “usually only several [cancer] cells per 1-milliliter sample of blood” containing billions of other cells, making cancer exceedingly difficult to detect.
  • This new dime-sized microfluidic machine works in the same way, but the solid silicon tubes were switched out for highly porous carbon nanotubes. This allows the blood to actually flow through the tubes instead of just around them, increasing the likelihood of catching a cancer cell.
  • In other cancer detection news, some are using dogs to sniff out cancer and others use genetic tests to figure out cancer risks.
  • Combating cancer ranges from new cancer-fighting drugs to just ignoring cancer (sometimes).

Not So Fast: The process of commercializing a technology like this takes quite a while; the previous version from four years ago is being tested in hospitals now and is may be commercially available “within the next few years.”

Next Up: The scientists are currently tweaking the device to try to catch HIV.

Reference: Grace D. Chen et al. “Nanoporous Elements in Microfluidics for Multiscale Manipulation of Bioparticles.” Small. DOI: 10.1002/smll.201002076

Image: Brian Wardle/MIT

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
  • Georg

    This allows the blood to actually flow through the tubes instead of just around them

    Nonsense,
    no blood cell can pass through a carbon nanotube! Even peptides (antibodys etc)
    will likely clog by filtering.

  • dave chamberlin

    You have been on a roll lately with scooping the other science blogs with interesting science news. Congrats.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Georg: Good question, and yes, no cell can get through an individual nanotube. It’s the blood plasma that flows through each tube, while the cells flow in the spaces between the tubes. When the liquid flows through each tube, it will tend to bring the tumor cells into contact with the tubes more than when the liquid flows between the posts, as in the older version. The nanotubes are in turn covered with antibodies that preferentially grab the tumor cells that are bumping into them.

  • Sean

    So when will they attach these to nano machines that will live in my body and destory cancer cells the moment they are created?

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