Flaring up: New tool for early cancer detection

NanoFlares image courtesy of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University

By Sara Freund

A new tool lights up cancer cells before they can develop into a tumor. Northwestern University scientists are developing NanoFlare technology that illuminates and isolates cancerous cells in the bloodstream.

“The NanoFlare turns on a light in the cancer cells you are looking for,” said Dr. Colby Thaxton in a news release, an author of the NanoFlare study published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We can find small numbers of cancer cells in blood, which really is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” said Thaxton in a news release, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

NanoFlare is the first genetic-based tool that can locate tumor cells anywhere within the bloodstream according to the study. The NanoFlares are DNA nanoparticles engineered to bind to certain genetic targets. If cancerous cells are present then the NanoFlare will bind to it and light up, according to the study.

Once the cancer cells were identified in blood samples taken from breast cancer patients, the researchers were able to separate them from normal cells. Many cancerous cells circulating in the blood will not metastasize into tumors but analysis of identified cancer cells could signal those that will.

NanoFlare technology is still years away from becoming a standard tool in early cancer detection, said Dr. Chongui Cheng, co-author of the study.

In the study results, scientists reported on four different NanoFlares they tested, each with a different genetic target known to exist in breast cancer metastasis.

First, it explained how scientists were able to track cancerous cells in the bloodstream. Second, researchers were able to isolate and separate cancerous cells in live form. This innovation would allow doctors and scientists to study a patient’s specific cancer, which is a step towards personalizing medicine to fit an individual’s genetic profile, Cheng said.

“Each cancer patient has different mutations, if we can better understand their tumor then we can treat the patients with much more effective therapeutics,” said Cheng, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

If the technology does go to clinical trials, all doctors would do is draw 10 milliliters of blood for screening, she said. “It’s not invasive at all, you just get a normal blood test and we would use that to see if there were any cancer cells. We would be able to isolate and evaluate the cells in the blood sample,” said Cheng.