A team in HP’s Print Adjacencies and Microfluidics Lab is working to develop a new method for isolating rare cancer cells. Their research project deploys a combination of hydrodynamic and electric fields to separate cells based on their electrical properties and could result in a new tool for liquid biopsies that is cheaper and more accurate than existing methods.
“HP has decades of experience in manipulating fluids at the microscopic level,” notes Viktor Shkolnikov, microfluidics research lead within HP’s Print Adjacencies and Microfluidics Lab. “We’re now leveraging that knowledge base to improve the technologies available for detecting the evidence of cancer in blood.”
The state of the art
Liquid biopsies take advantage of the fact that cancers metastasize by releasing cells into the bloodstream. Many of these cells are cleared by the immune system, but others can find a new home in the body and begin to grow uncontrollably. A liquid biopsy filters a blood sample in some way to separate out the free-floating cancer cells and enable identification and then treatment of the cancer.
“This has a number of advantages over a traditional cancer biopsy which requires a surgical intervention to remove a sample from the original tumor that is both invasive and can end up spreading the cancer cells,” Shkolnikov explains.
Liquid biopsies typically follow one of two basic methods, either separating complete cells (known as circulating tumor cell biopsies) or finding snippets of cancer DNA in the blood (known as circulating tumor DNA or vesicle biopsies). Both are problematic, however. The former yields whole cells that let you discover whether the mutations it detects are “cooperative” and therefore likely to metastasize, but has trouble distinguishing between cancer cells and other objects, such as white blood cells. That forces diagnosticians to spend money on investigating cells that aren’t actually cancerous.
Circulating tumor DNA or vesicle biopsies, meanwhile, can more easily yield evidence of specific cancers, but the absence of whole cancer cells makes it hard to know which part of a tumor the material came from, which in turn makes it hard to know whether the cancer that you find is likely to metastasize.