One of the cruelest truths about cancer is that even after you beat the disease, it can still come back to kill you. A tumor growing in the prostate gland, breast, or any other organ can shed cancerous cells into the blood. These cancerous seeds travel the body and can take root nearly anywhere, growing into a new cancer threat even after the initial cancer is treated.
The rule of thumb with cancer is that the earlier you can detect the disease, the more effective the treatment, and hence better potential outcomes.
Currently, doctors draw a patient's blood and analyze it using special antibodies to detect the presence of the seeds, called circulating tumor cells (CTCs). This works well if CTCs are present in large numbers, but may fail to detect smaller numbers released by earlier tumors.
Now, a team of engineers, scientists and doctors from Stanford is developing a mini-microscope that might be able to noninvasively detect the CTCs earlier than ever, allowing for earlier interventions.
"There has been a huge push to increase sensitivity," said Bonnie King, an instructor at Stanford School of Medicine. "We suspect that CTCs often circulate in numbers below our current threshold of detectability."
A major advantage with the microscopic technique, King said, is the ability to screen much larger volumes of blood, rather than just a small vial collected from a patient. This will be done using a method called in vivo flow cytometry – a laser-based technology for counting cells in a live subject.