A research collaboration between the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and Children’s Hospital Boston has created a microfluidic device that can harvest rare circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from blood to enable their expansion in culture for analysis. These cells, which have detached from a primary cancer site and often create a secondary -- or metastasized -- tumor, hold an extraordinary amount of information regarding patient-specific drug sensitivity, cancer progression, and patient response to therapy.
This novel approach for capturing and culturing CTCs combines micromagnetics and microfluidics within a cell-separation device, about the size of a credit card, in which microfluidic channels have been molded into a hard clear polymer. As blood flows through these channels, magnetic beads that have been coated to selectively stick to the CTCs are used to separate them from the other cells in the blood. The dimensions of the channels have been designed to protect CTCs from mechanical stresses that might alter their structure or biochemistry, as well as to maximize the number of CTCs that can be captured.