Dime-sized device can separate healthy and cancerous cells

The microfluidic device uses sound waves to sort cells as they flow through the channel, from left to right.--Courtesy of MIT

MIT scientists have developed a dime-sized microfluidic device that can sort rare cancer cells from healthy ones using sound waves--an innovation that could have applications for cancer diagnosis, drug discovery and clinical research. 

"Acoustic pressure is very mild and much smaller in terms of forces and disturbance to the cell. This is a most gentle way to separate cells, and there's no artificial labeling necessary," MIT researcher and study co-author Ming Dao said in a MIT news release.

The team, also comprising scientists from Carnegie Mellon and Penn State, managed to separate healthy cells from cancerous ones by running acoustic sound waves across the device's microchannel so that they met at an angle, creating a line of low pressure. Upon encountering the low pressure while flowing through the microchannel, the cancerous and noncancerous cells separate onto either side of the channel. The separation occurs based on different cellular properties such as cell size and compressibility, MIT explains.

The device was able to sort 71% of breast cancer cells from white blood cells. The team has filed a patent on the device. Next, the researchers plans to test the device using the actual blood of cancer patients, to see how it performs at separating the cells in clinical settings, according to the news release. More details are available in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"If you can detect these rare circulating tumor cells, it's a good way to study cancer biology and diagnose whether the primary cancer has moved to a new site to generate metastatic tumors," Dao said in the release.  

Microfluidic devices aim to create a "lab-on-chip" by acting as platforms that mimic biological systems in a simplified, in vitro (outside the body) setting.

The journal Microfluidics and Nanofluidics describes microfluidics as "the study of mass (including molecular and colloidal) and momentum transfer, heat transfer, and reactive processes, coupled with transport in microscale and nanoscale systems."  

The FDA's device arm is encouraging the creation of in vitro models for medical device development and assessment through the launch of a pilot program to validate research tools such as this one. However, in this case, the new device is likely to prove most useful as a tool for drug development or cancer diagnosis.

- read the MIT news release
- here's the study abstract in PNAS
-
read the article in its entirety (PDF)

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