Highlights in Chemical Biology

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Tackling rogue tumour cells

13 January 2010

Scientists in the US have developed a way to track down and destroy tumour cells in blood. Cells which detach from primary tumours can circulate in the bloodstream and finally settle in another area of the body. This spreads the disease causing metastatic cancer, which is a major cause of death amongst cancer patients who appear to have been successfully treated. Now Chang Lu from Purdue University, West Lafayette, US, have used a technique called electroporation to selectively purge these circulating tumour cells from the blood. 

In electroporation, an external electric field is applied to a cell, creating numerous nanoscale holes in the cell membrane. These holes, or pores, allow foreign objects, such as drugs, to enter the cell and can eventually lead to cell death. Lu's team passed cells through a microfluidic channel and found that tumour cells were substantially more susceptible to damage by electoporation than healthy red or white blood cells. 

Electroporation technique

A flow-through electroporation technique studies different responses of blood cells and tumor cells to an electric field

Lu says that the simplicity and speed for treating cells makes it a very attractive method. 'We envision that our technique can be applied to destroy residual tumour cells in the blood after the removal of primary tumours. This practice will potentially decrease metastasis-related deaths,' he adds. 

Tilak Jain, an expert in electroporation at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, US, finds the work innovative and exciting, saying 'combined with existing chemotherapeutics it could lead to a powerful dual attack force against circulating cells.' 

Lu and colleagues are now turning their attention to proving the clinical value of their technique, in particular preserving the viability of white blood cells during the process. 

Hilary Burch 

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Link to journal article

Microfluidic electroporation of tumor and blood cells: observation of nucleus expansion and implications on selective analysis and purging of circulating tumor cells
Ning Bao, Thuc T. Le, Ji-Xin Cheng and Chang Lu, Integr. Biol., 2010, 2, 113
DOI: 10.1039/b919820b

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