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Detection of 'Cell Dust' in Bloodstream May Allow Diagnosis, Monitoring of Brain Cancer

System combining nanotechnology and NMR detects particles shed by brain tumors (Nov. 11)

According to a new study published in Nature Medicine, a novel miniature diagnostic platform using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology is capable of detecting minuscule cell particles known as microvesicles in a drop of blood. These particles, shed by cancer cells, are more numerous than those released by normal cells, so detecting them could prove a simple means for diagnosing cancer.

"The issue with microvesicles, however, is that they are very small, so there are not many technologies out there that can detect and molecularly profile them," explains Hakho Lee, PhD, co-senior author of the study. "That is where our new technology comes in."

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is the most common and most aggressive brain cancer in humans. By the time it is diagnosed, patients typically have less than 15 months to live. One of the biggest challenges with this condition is accurate disease monitoring to establish whether patients are responding to treatment. Currently, the only way to diagnose and monitor GBM is with biopsies and imaging tests, making long-term treatment monitoring difficult, invasive, and impractical. To address this need, Lee and his colleagues sought to develop a simple blood test that could easily monitor disease progression.

By using nanotechnology to magnetically label microvesicles, and by adapting and improving equipment they developed last year to detect cancer cells with a miniature, hand-held NMR, the researchers were able to reliably detect tumor microvesicles in blood samples from mice bearing human GBM tumors and eventually in samples from human GBM patients.

Compared with other gold-standard techniques, this new technology demonstrated excellent detection accuracy, the researchers said. Unlike other methods — which can be time-consuming and require much greater sample volumes as well as expertise to perform — NMR detection is quick and simple, potentially providing almost instant results from a small blood sample right in a physician’s office.

The investigators are currently extending this platform to other types of cancer and to other diseases, such as bacterial infections. A number of clinical studies are currently ongoing, and others are in the planning stages, with the goal of eventually commercializing the technology.

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital; November 12, 2012.

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