Houston's Methodist Hospital, others, look to tech to fight cancer

A cure for cancer remains elusive, but researchers are testing new technologies to improve detection and efficacy of treatment.  

One early-detection method comes from researchers at the Methodist Hospital in Houston, who developed a tool that separates tumor-causing cancer cells from more benign cells by subjecting the cells to "a microscopic game of Plinko," according to an announcement. Only the squishiest cells make it through the gauntlet.

As reported in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the more flexible, tumor-causing cells navigated tiny barriers, whereas the more rigid, more benign cells had trouble squeezing through 7 micrometer holes. Methodist scientists worked with University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center researchers to test the device with different kinds of cancer cells.

Cancer stem cells are known to be more flexible (or squishier) than other cancer cells. The team of scientists showed that flexible cells separated by the MS-Chip exhibited gene expression patterns consistent with cancer stem cells.

Each MS-Chip costs about $10 to produce, but mass production could bring the cost down to $1.

In Europe, meanwhile, researchers are developing another device: an extremely sensitive, easy-to-use HSP70 detection platform. (HSP70, a protein indicating stress in the human body, is a biomarker for prostate, colon, esophagus, lung, and brain cancer.) The device, the size of a small suitcase, should hit the market in 2014.

The process begins with a single drop of a patient's blood. It's inserted in a chip that contains many microchannels. Inside each of the channels are tiny and circular structures "trap" HSP70. "As the blood flows through the channels, the HSP70 proteins are trapped by the structures, of which there are thousands in the pathway that the blood follows through the chip," researchers said.

The early detection method, called Spedoc, has many advantages, researchers said: "Fast and non-invasive, it could replace costly cancer biomarker detection methods."

And researchers continue to explore ways to treat cancer effectively with the help of IBM's natural language processing computer, Watson. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York has developed a decision-support app for Watson--this fall, after six months of teaching their treatment guidelines to the computer, the doctors at Sloan-Kettering will begin testing it on real patients, according to an article in the October issue of Fast Company.

To learn more:
- read the Methodist announcement
- see the PNAS journal article
- read about Spedoc here
- check out the Fast Company article

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