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Getting A Grip On Cancer Cells With A Microscopic Velcro

What’s the best way to isolate a cancer cell in a person to test it? The new NanoVelcro uses its tiny hooks to pull them directly out of your blood, opening up the possibilities of liquid biopsies.

Velcro—which was first inspired by tiny burrs clinging to a Swedish scientist’s clothes—has moved to a new and important realm: cancer. Researchers at UCLA are refining a method to capture and analyze rogue cancer cells using a Velcro-like technology that works on the nanoscale. Their new device can detect, isolate, and analyze single cancer cells from a patient’s blood.

Researchers have long recognized that circulating tumor cells play an important role in spreading cancer to other parts of the body. When the cells can be analyzed and identified early, they can offer clues to how the disease may progress in an individual patient—and how to best tailor a personalized cancer treatment.

The UCLA team has developed a NanoVelcro chip that traps individual cancer cells to analyze. The chip is already being tested in prostate cancer according to research published in the journal Advanced Materials in late March.

With the new system, a patient’s blood is pumped through the NanoVelcro Chip—tiny hairs protruding from the cancer cells will stick to the nanofiber structures on the device’s surface, much like Velcro hooks grabbing onto available loops. Then, the scientists selectively cut out the cancer cells using laser microdissection, which cuts down on any contamination from harmless white blood cells. Finally, the isolated and purified cancer cells are subjected to single cell sequencing, which reveals mutations in the genetic material of the cells and may help doctors personalize therapies to a patient’s unique cancer.

The researchers say this technology may function as a liquid biopsy. Instead of removing tissue samples through a needle inserted into a solid tumor, the cancer cells can be analyzed directly from the blood stream, making analysis quicker and easier. They say this is especially important in cancers like prostate, where biopsies are extremely difficult because the disease often spreads to bone, where the availability of the tissue is low. In addition, the technology lets doctors look at free-floating cancer cells earlier than they’d have access to a biopsy site.

Nano Velcro-like particles have also been tapped in other fields. Last year, a Swiss-American team created a technology that could both detect and remove heavy metals like lead in water. They created nanoparticles covered with tiny hairs that can grab onto toxic heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. They say the tech makes it possible to easily and inexpensively test for these substances in water and, more importantly, in the fish slated for human consumption. Their new method can measure methyl mercury, the most common form of mercury pollution, at newly tiny concentrations.