May 19, 2024

New Approach Makes Liquid Biopsies Easier By Isolating Circulating Tumor Cells

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Jan 20, 2024

Researchers Develop Injectable Hydrogel to Improve Detection of Circulating Tumor Cells in Blood

Researchers at MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have developed a new approach to liquid biopsies that captures circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in an injectable hydrogel, making the cells easier to isolate from blood samples (Source 1). This technology could significantly improve doctors’ ability to detect and monitor cancer through simple blood tests.

The hydrogel contains molecules that bind to proteins found on tumor cells, capturing CTCs as they flow through the bloodstream. When a blood sample is taken after injection, the hydrogel sequesters CTCs, allowing them to be easily isolated for analysis. According to MIT professor Sangeeta Bhatia, “What we showed is that we could improve the sensitivity of detection by using this injectable gel. It grabs onto tumor cells and helps concentrate the tumor cells in the sample that you take.”

Early detection is critical for improving cancer survival rates. Liquid biopsies, which analyze tumor byproducts such as DNA in the bloodstream, offer a promising alternative to invasive surgical biopsies for detection and monitoring. However, CTCs, which can yield the most valuable information, are challenging to capture as they are extremely rare — as few as one in a billion blood cells.

Bhatia and her team set out to develop a simple approach to concentrate CTCs in blood samples and boost the accuracy of liquid biopsies. The injectable hydrogel provides 100 times greater sensitivity for detecting lung, breast and skin cancer in blood samples compared to unenhanced liquid biopsies.

New Molecules Could Revolutionize Liquid Biopsy Tests for Cancer

Two other research teams have developed new techniques to improve liquid biopsy tests for cancer, both relying on injectable molecules that interact with tumor material in the bloodstream. Their approaches could complement Bhatia’s hydrogel, providing alternative methods for sensitizing liquid biopsies.

A team led by MIT chemical engineer Michael Cima created synthetic DNA molecules called DNA Hairpins that greatly boost the signal of tumor DNA in blood samples (Source 2). Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University engineered CAR-T sensor cells that detect circulating tumor antigens when injected into the bloodstream (Source 3).

Both methods work by accumulating signals from tumor molecules over time, rather than relying on a single blood draw like typical liquid biopsy tests. This signal amplification allows much smaller amounts of tumor material to be detected compared to standard techniques.

Initial tests showed 1000 times better detection of lung cancer DNA using the DNA Hairpins, while the CAR-T sensors could identify ovarian cancer at an extremely early stage in mouse models. The researchers are now conducting trials for different cancer types in humans. Both methods are producing promising results that could substantially improve early cancer diagnosis through liquid biopsy tests.

Method Description Cancer Types Tested Level of Detection
Injectable Hydrogel Binds to tumor cell proteins, sequesters circulating tumor cells Lung, Breast, Skin 100 times lower than typical liquid biopsy
DNA Hairpins Synthetic DNA binds to tumor DNA and accumulates over time, boosting signal Lung 1000 times lower DNA detected
CAR-T Sensors Engineered T-cells bind to tumor antigens and activate, signalling detection Ovarian Extremely early tumors in mice

Enhanced Liquid Biopsies Have Potential to Revolutionize Cancer Detection and Monitoring

The innovative research on boosting liquid biopsy analysis signals a new era in the detection and management of cancer. As liquid biopsies become more sensitive, they can identify tumors at much earlier stages and detect residual disease to monitor treatment effectiveness. This would significantly improve patient outcomes and reduce mortality rates.

“This research underscores the potential of enhanced liquid biopsy technologies to truly revolutionize cancer detection and monitoring,” said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society.

Widespread clinical implementation faces regulatory hurdles, though the initial trial data is promising. The DNA Hairpins have advanced to human testing while the CAR-T sensors proved safe and effective in mice. If trials continue successfully, the first enhanced liquid biopsy tests could be commercially available within 5 years.

Researchers also aim to develop customized panels to detect specific cancer biomarkers. This would allow screening for cancers that currently lack good diagnostic tests like ovarian cancer. Targeting different protein markers could enable monitoring of treatment response and early detection of relapse.

Challenges Remain But Outlook is Positive

While still an emerging field, enhanced liquid biopsy shows immense potential to paradigm shift our approach to cancer management. Technical advances are rapidly solving problems like tumor heterogeneity and sampling errors that previously hindered progress.

Remaining challenges include difficulty detecting brain metastases and concerns about feasibility for widespread adoption. Brain tumors are harder to access as proteins can’t cross the blood-brain barrier into circulation. New sample collection sites closer to tumors may be needed to overcome this issue.

There is also debate regarding cost-effectiveness for large-scale implementation as a cancer screening tool. The added complexity could make liquid biopsies prohibitively expensive compared to standard diagnostic methods. Researchers are focused on streamlining processes to control expenses while improving accuracy.

Though barriers exist, the mood among experts is optimistic given the accelerating innovation. “There’s still work to do, but these technologies could dramatically change how we detect, monitor and treat cancer,” said Dr. Maximilian Diehn, a Stanford researcher involved with liquid biopsy development. “It’s an exciting time to be in the field.”

The potential to identify deadly cancers early and improve patient outcomes makes worth overcoming the remaining hurdles. Widespread adoption of enhanced liquid biopsies could save millions of lives. And with brilliant scientific minds driving progress, this revolutionary technology appears poised for near-term clinical impact. The future looks bright.




AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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