Ultra-Fast Camera Catches Cancer In The Act Of Spreading

Smile little cancer cells, you are on candid camera! Researchers are using a high-speed camera to see single cancer cells in the blood before they can take up residence in the body, they report in a new study.

Metastasis, or the spreading of a disease from one organ to another, is responsible for 90 per cent of cancer deaths. Catching and treating cancers early can prevent metastasis and save lives.

Cancerous tumors, sometimes too small to be felt or found, form inside the body. Some of these cells break away from the tumour and circulate in the bloodstream. These circulating tumour cells can help cancer spread, but they can also be what helps doctors find the cancer.

Scientific American reports that one milliliter of blood from a cancer patient can contain about 5 billion red blood cells, 10 million white blood cells, and only 10 tumour cells. Detecting the tumour cells can be difficult because they are in such low quantity and surrounded by many cells.

STEAM cameraThe blood cells are streamed through the camera’s path, where they are analysed to see if any are cancerous.

Photo: Goda Et al, PNAS, 2012.

To catch them in action, the researchers developed a technology called STEAM (serial time-encoded amplified microscopy). The camera uses short laser pulses to image blood samples, giving it a shutter speed of 27 picoseconds. The images are processed by super fast software that can identify tumour cells in the blood through their shape, size, and texture.Clinical testing is now being performed on lung, stomach, breast, prostate, and intestinal cancers, with hopes of adding ovarian and pancreatic cancers as well. This simple blood test is a great easy way to detect cancer that could make screening for a wide range of cancers easier and faster.

The study was published in July by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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