Lehigh professor engineers a better cancer blood test to detect early tumors
 
For years, bioengineer Yaling Liu has been in pursuit of the deadly tumor cell. Liu has been perfecting a microfluidic device the size of two quarters that has the ability to catch and release circulating tumor cells (CTCs)—cancer cells that circulate in a cancer patient’s blood. Such a device could lead to earlier detection of primary tumors and metastasis, as well as determine the effectiveness of treatment—all through a simple, non-invasive blood test.
 
Liu, associate professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering, is in the early stages of testing his device in a clinical setting—and the results are promising.
 
Liu’s “lab on a chip” is notable for its ability to not only capture tumor cells circulating in the blood, but to “release” those cells as well.
 
“Our circulating tumor cell device can release a tumor cell captured from a blood sample, enabling single cell analysis,” says Liu. “It could be used to check the effectiveness of treatment by identifying the amount of tumor cells circulating. Conducting genetic testing on a released single cell could also reveal whether the primary tumor had metastasized, as metastasized cells have unique genetic markers.”
 
The device could also be used to check the effectiveness of cancer gene therapy.
 
“Genetic tests could be performed on the released CTCs, indicating if the gene therapy is triggering changes in gene expression,” says Liu. In other words, such testing could help detect whether a therapy is working or if other methods should be explored.
 
Liu will present some of these findings today, April 18, at a conference in Istanbul, Turkey called "The Future of Medicine" hosted by Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT) and Bahçeşehir University. Liu will present via Skype from his office at Lehigh.
 
Liu’s device is part of a clinical drug trial for melanoma and renal cancers at the Lehigh Valley Cancer Institute. Funding for the study has been provided by the Andy Derr Foundation for Kidney Cancer Research. The goal is to gather preliminary data about whether the device can improve care.
 
The first stage of the trial, which involved an analysis of circulating tumor cells from a single blood draw of several dozen patients, has demonstrated strong potential.
 
“The next step will be to track a few patients over the course of their treatment, taking several blood draws to see if the data captured by the microfluidic device correlates with the data their medical team is collecting through other methods,” says Liu.
 
Liu and his team are preparing to undertake that next step within the next few months.
 
Read the full story at the Lehigh University News Center.

Yaling Liu, Lehigh University