Texas Tech University

New Technology Detects Cancer Cells Circulating Through Bloodstream

Sally Post

October 2, 2017

Wei Li

Assistant professor Wei Li is part of a research group that has published a paper detailing a major step forward in cancer diagnosis.


Picking a single cancer cell out of trillions of blood cells is delicate, expensive work. Existing techniques are not readily affordable for medical facilities in rural areas or with limited resources.

Wei Li, an assistant professor in the Texas Tech Department of Chemical Engineering, is part of a research group that has published a paper in the online version of the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials and Interfaces detailing a new method that could be a major step forward in cancer diagnosis.

The article details how a tiny, hollow glass bubble about half the width of a human hair could be the answer to a fast, inexpensive way to pick cancer cells out of a patient's blood.

"Cancer cells can break off from a tumor site and travel through the blood to a find a new host, creating yet another tumor," said Li. "Detecting these cells early can aid physicians in devising treatment much earlier. And early detection of cancer is key in survival rates."

Li is working with hollow glass bubbles that are coated with a special nanofilm that attracts cancer cells, but not blood cells. A sample of a patient's blood is put into a plastic tube containing the bubble and it is shaken for a few minutes. Cancer cells attached on the bubbles will float to the surface while normal blood cells will sink to the bottom.

Li believes this technology has other applications beyond cancer detection. The same system could preserve cells isolated from blood that need to be sent to distant medical facilities for testing.

"Big cities have testing facilities," he said. "But rural areas most often do not. It's easy to draw blood and get a test done if you live near a testing facility. But some tests must be done within four hours of drawing the blood. We think our microbubble system could preserve the cells isolated from blood for a long enough time to get them to a facility. We don't know yet, but it's the next phase of our research."

The work described in the journal article is the basis for a new project that recently received $200,000 from CPRIT, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

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