Cancer cells obtained from a blood test may be able to predict how early-stage lung cancer patients will fare, a team from the University of Michigan has shown.
This information could be used to determine which patients are most likely to benefit from additional therapies to head off the spread of the cancer to other areas of the body.
With a new single cell analysis service in U-M’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, the researchers are making the necessary technology more widely available in the university system. They hope these “liquid biopsies” will be offered to patients within the next five years.
Circulating tumor cells, representing only about one in a billion cells in the bloodstream, are largely untapped sources of information about tumors, but new methods are bringing their diagnostic value ever closer to patient care.
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Sunitha Nagrath, U-M professor of chemical engineering who designs devices that can capture these rare cells, led a team including oncologists and surgeons to explore how cancer cells escape tumors and travel through the body in the bloodstream. This is how metastases, or satellite tumors elsewhere in the body, are thought to form.
“The tumors were constantly shedding cells even when they were small — that’s one thing we learned,” Nagrath said. “Although we define the tumors as early stage, already they are disseminating cells in the body.”
Early-stage lung cancer patients, whose tumors may only measure a few millimeters in diameter, are typically treated with surgical removal of the tumor, but the study results suggest that this may not be enough. A handful of patients had tumors that were shedding hundreds or thousands of tumor cells into the lung.