A collaboration between groups at MIT and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute led to the creation of a system that allows for quick determination of the susceptibility of cancer cells to specific drugs, without the need to rely on genomic markers. The technique consists of flowing the cells through vibrating microchannels, which lets the researchers obtain single cell mass measurements in a high-throughput manner. By comparing the weights of cells that have been treated with a drug to those of untreated cells, the researchers can quickly identify whether a drug will have a significant effect on a tumor. The technology could play a role in facilitating personalized medicine for a variety of cancer types.
Determining whether a given cancer patient will respond well to a particular drug is important to maximize the chances of treatment success while minimizing side effects. At present, clinicians sometimes use genomic markers to determine whether a cancer is likely to respond to a given treatment. However, these markers are not always reliable indicators of drug susceptibility, with other factors sometimes affecting the ultimate outcome of treatment. This conundrum has inspired these researchers to search for another marker of drug susceptibility that may prove more useful for certain cancers.
“Essentially all of the clinically used cancer drugs either directly or indirectly stop the growth of cancer cells,” said Scott Manalis, one of the scientists that build the new device. “That’s why we think measuring mass could offer a universal readout of the effects of a lot of different types of drug mechanisms.”
The new approach is based on actually quantifying how cells respond to a treatment, rather than just performing a genetic analysis and proceeding on that basis. It involves passing cancer cells that have been isolated from a patient through a series of vibrating microchannels where their mass is accurately measured.
By comparing samples of treated and untreated cells, the researchers can quickly gain information about drug susceptibility by detecting subtle changes in mass. Excitingly, the technique could be helpful for a wide variety of cancers.
“Most cancers do not have a genomic marker that can be used at all. What we argue is that this functional approach could work in other situations where you don’t have any option of a genomic marker,” said Manalis.