With just a teaspoon full of blood, a credit card-sized chip can help spot tiny cancer cells flowing through a patient's bloodstream.
"These cells are likely the agents of metastatic cancer and metastatic cancers are what kill most of the patients in U.S. and worldwide," says Dr. Paul Billings of Cellpoint Diagnostics.
At his lab in Mountain View, Dr. Billings is overseeing development of the chip which can actually trap those cells. Inside are thousands of tiny plastic pillars. Technicians coat them with antibodies for specific cancers. A microscope image shows that as blood passes through the chip, the minute organisms, known as circulating tumor cells, stick to the pillars.
"Once we've captured them, we can analyze them on the chip, or take them off the chip and characterize them further," says Dr. Billings.
He says results are available in hours instead of days. The technique was originally tested at Massachusetts General. Doctors there hope the chip will give them a quicker reading on whether a particular cancer treatment is working.
"When the treatment works, we can see a decline, a reduction in the number of cells we can pull out of the blood. When these patients have tumors that do recur, we see a rise or an increase in the number of these cells," says Dr. Daniel Haber, Mass General.
Now Billings' team at Cellpoint Diagnostic is manufacturing and testing cards for clinical trial.
Early applications could allow doctors to try out and adjust cancer treatments on a patient and quickly settle on what's working best, but ultimately the technology could reach beyond that.
"With further development of this technology and more sensitivity, it's possible they could be used as a monitor for early signs of cancer in some cancer patients," says Dr. Billings.
It's a potential early warning system for both detecting and treating deadly cancers.