Detecting cancer faster

A US engineering team has developed a system for detecting and monitoring cancer through blood testing at unprecedented speeds.

An engineering team from The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and The Scripps Research Institute have developed a system for detecting and monitoring cancer through blood testing at unprecedented speeds.

The Fibre Array Scanning Technology (FAST) cytometer uses PARC’s competencies in lasers, opto-mechanical engineering, and imaging to detect cancer cells almost 1000 times faster than digital microscopy, the current gold standard.

At the earliest stages of the disease, cancer cells are present in a person’s bloodstream at extremely low concentrations (one per million to one per ten million). Recognising these “rare cells” could be invaluable for patient diagnosis and monitoring, but their concentration makes them very difficult to find and reliably identify. Today, tagging of rare cells with a fluorescing agent enables identification of rare cells; however, at least 50 million cells need to be scanned for statistical relevance.

At present, the FAST cytometer can analyse such a sample in two minutes compared with 16 to 32 hours required for digital microscopy. The key to the technology’s efficiency is its wide scanning area. While digital microscopy scanning has less than a millimetre field of view in which to acquire images, the FAST cytometer has a 50 millimetre-wide field of view. High-speed scanning techniques found in laser printing enable the high scan rates.

Initially the FAST cytometer will serve as a pre-screening device. Once probable rare cells are identified, higher-resolution scanning can be used to create images a physician or other qualified expert would review. Cells can also be relocated for additional characterisation and testing.

The technology has general applicability for other rare cell-related research topics such as the detection of fetal cells in maternal blood and early detection of viral-infected cells.

“Our goal in creating the FAST cytometer is to enable identification of rare cells in the clinic,” said Richard Bruce, director of the Scripps-PARC Institute for Advanced Biomedical Sciences and manager of PARC’s Computer Science Laboratory.

“Because the FAST cytometer uses simple, robust technology and enables cost-efficient operation, we believe it could make screening for cancer or other rare cells as routine as an annual blood test.”