From Bridges to Blood Cells: Engineering Devices for Cancer Research
by Kristina Woods Butler
What if only one drop of blood was all it took to diagnose cancer? What if only one drop of blood could help doctors diagnose it earlier? Thanks to a newly designed microfluidic device created by assistant professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, Siva Vanapalli, this may be the future of cancer diagnosis.
Vanapalli and researchers from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) are testing a hypothesis that could help with early diagnosis of cancer by engineering microfluidic devices for cellular analysis.
Vanapalli's idea was to engineer a device called a Microfluidic Cell Squeezer that measures the properties of individual cells as they squeeze through channels, only sub-millimeter in diameter, within the device. Researchers are then able to identify between healthy and cancerous cells based on their mechanical stiffness – healthy cells are expected to be stiffer, whereas cancerous cells are more yielding.
The team proposed the idea to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and received a grant to continue the research.
"We are trying to watch and understand how tumor cells are able to squeeze through the small channels," Vanapalli said. "We had the idea to see if you can look at the stiffness of a cell, and use that as a marker to see if it is healthy or cancerous."
The reason the cell stiffness is important, Vanapalli said, is because scientists believe cancer cells should be able to crawl easily and should be more flexible in order to invade and spread the disease.
"As of now, it is a challenge in terms of early diagnosis to identify markers that can predict early on if you have the disease or not. And if you look at the available markers that already exist, they are specific to each type of cancer," Vanapalli said. "If indeed the hypothesis is true, then our device would be able to screen any type of cancer."
Vanapalli explains his research using microfluidic devices to help with early diagnosis of cancer.
A microfluidics device resembles a computer chip with small channels that direct individual cells or liquid through the device.
Images Courtesy Neal Hinkle, TTUHSC.
Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.
Vanapalli and his group also received a grant from the National Science Foundation to address another area involving the fundamental physics associated with droplet traffic in microfluidic networks. In order to begin studying this problem, the group had to create intricate devices with hundreds of channels to mimic complex road systems.
"We can essentially engineer any highway structure we want on a device, and look at which are the most optimal structures that will lead to efficient traffic," Vanapalli said.
The idea is to use the device as a tool to understand how traffic flows by using air bubbles which travel through the channels like vehicles.
"Our hope is that we can engineer some structure of the highways, which will allow more efficient transport of trucks, cars at the bigger scale," Vanapalli said.
Vanapalli believes this study of traffic could also have relevance to many other network environments as well, like the flow of blood cells through veins and arteries, moisture in trees, and even traffic on the Internet. For example, understanding how deformable objects such as bubbles and drops move in microchannel networks could potentially yield new avenues for jamming the traffic of tumor cells in microvasculature, to mitigate metastasis.
Students as Researchers
Vanapalli, who is an undergraduate research mentor, said his students have played an important role in this latest project.
"I was very excited about involving undergraduates in the lab because they can easily see these ideas of traffic in their head," he said. "It is very easy to explain to them the importance of the problem."
Many students of different ages and educational backgrounds contribute to Vanapalli's research. He said having students at all levels in the lab is very important because they each serve a specific purpose. Those with experience become mentors to the younger students, and the younger students sometimes bring new perspective on projects.
"I believe students are essentially the heart of the lab in terms of both executing the project and in terms of discovery and generating new ideas," he said.
To find the inspiration for Vanapalli's projects, you have to step away from the microscope, and even outside the lab. He said his inspirations come from the world around him, which he then tries to apply in the lab by using the devices he creates.
"Inspiration could be just by looking at nature, how trees are able to operate effectively. And then we ask, 'Is it possible to design those kind of structures in the lab?'" Vanapalli said. "Or a doctor is drawing blood, and we ask, 'Is it possible to use just a drop of blood to do all of the analysis instead of having a large amount of blood being drawn?' Essentially, the inspiration is from everything we see in life, everything we do."
But for the research to come full circle and ultimately have an impact on nature and the world, Vanapalli said it has to return to the lab.
"Research always starts in the lab at a small scale, and your expectation or your hope is that it will impact other things on the globe," Vanapalli said. "The problems that we are looking into – like traffic – definitely have an impact on the global scale. And then health diagnostics, specifically on cancer, also have a larger impact. Our hope is that in this process of discovery we can hopefully change how things happen in the world."
Texas Tech University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) have garnered a large amount of support from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).
Since 2009, Texas Tech University System institutions have received approximately $4.9 million in grants from CPRIT. With more than 15 applications still pending, TTUHSC has submitted 53 proposals and received funding for six projects totaling $4.7 million, and Texas Tech has submitted 18 proposals and received funding for one project totaling $199,796.
CPRIT was established in November 2007, after legislative and Texas voters' approval, to stimulate and expedite innovation in the area of cancer research and to enhance the potential for a medical or scientific breakthrough in the prevention of cancer and cures for cancer. The organization oversees the $3 billion in bonds to be invested in cancer research in Texas over the next 10 years and is working with academic institutions and private companies throughout the state by awarding grants to fund their cancer research.
Kristina Butler is a Sr. Editor for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.