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Speed Bumps May Reduce the Spread of Cancer Cells

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spread of cancer cells may be reduced by speed bumps iStockphoto/Thinkstock

One of the scariest things a cancer patient can hear is that their cancer has spread to another area or organ inside the body.

Virtually any cancer type, including cancers of the blood and the lymphatic system, such as leukemia and lymphoma, can form metastatic tumors, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Cancer cells move around inside a person’s body three ways. They can grow to invade nearby healthy tissues, move through the walls of nearby lymph or blood vessels or break off from the primary tumor and travel one of the “interstate highways” of the body: the lymphatic system or bloodstream.

Although most cancers have the ability to spread to many different parts of the body, they usually spread to one particular site. The most common cancer metastasic sites are the lungs, bones, and liver.

Ideally, if roving cancer cells could be detected and targeted for treatment in the bloodstream, they might not have a chance to metastasize, or spread cancer elsewhere. And that’s just what two Johns Hopkins University engineers believe they have accomplished.

German Drazer, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and his doctoral student, Jorge A. Bernate, say they have found an easy way to use gravity or other simple physical forces to sort microscopic particles and bits of biological matter, including circulating tumor cells, by simply putting “speed bumps” on the highway.

It sounds a bit complicated, but the engineers developed a lab-on-chip platform, also known as a microfluidic device, that sorts particles, cells or other tiny matter with gravity.

The device works by moving a liquid over a series of micron-scale high diagonal ramps — akin to speed bumps on a road — causing the microscopic material to separate into distinct categories, based on weight, size or other factors.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a simple device that can be used in routine checkups by health care providers,” said Jorge Bernate, lead author on the paper.

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