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Team touts cancer ‘lab on a chip’

by jroth on October 8, 2009

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(M2M comment- Dr. Aaron Wheeler at the Canadian Cancer Society Innovative Research in Cancer Event, Sept. 23, 2009, showed a similar device he is developing to detect Prostate Cancer.)

Joseph Hall    HEALTH REPORTER           TORONTO STAR

Aaron Wheeler holds a petri dish bearing a lump of breast tissue that resembles, in size and appearance, a piece of chewed gum.

In his right, the University of Toronto chemist holds a microchip array, about the size of a credit card, bearing a drop of red liquid about a thousand times smaller than the glob of flesh. The drop represents the minute amount of cells that Wheeler’s tiny board needs to accurately gauge estrogen levels in a woman’s breast tissue.

The invention holds out the promise in the near future of pocket-sized detectors that could help diagnose and monitor breast cancer, which requires high levels of the female hormone to thrive.

It also earned Wheeler’s U of T team the inaugural front cover of a major scientific journal.

“This is the size of tissue that you would normally need to take out to (determine) estrogen levels,” says Wheeler, holding out the petri dish. “Obviously we can’t routinely be cutting pieces like this out of women’s breasts.”

Wheeler’s work appeared Wednesday on the cover of the first issue of Science Translational Medicine, based in Washington, D.C.

An offshoot of the prestigious weekly Science, the journal spotlights work progressing out of the laboratory into hospitals.

Wheeler freely admits the prominent coverage could help attract investors for his device, which he hopes to couple with emerging microchip analyzer technology to create a pocket-sized screener for breast cancer.

Women with such cancers have much higher levels of estrogen in the surrounding tissue. And there is growing evidence the hormone is greatly elevated in women at risk of developing breast cancer.

Currently, however, these telltale estrogen levels can only be determined by cutting fingertip-sized pieces of tissue out of the breast for lab analysis. Because they’re so painful and disfiguring, however, such tests are rarely done.

Wheeler says his “lab on a chip” technology would require only a fraction of the sample cells, obtained with a simple needle prick.

The device works by using electrical charges to “dance” droplets of liquids on a precise route over the surface of the microchip circuitry.

One solvent droplet is sent over a dried sample of tissue to open up the cellular walls. Another is then sent in to extract the intercellular contents that have been exposed.

That millimetre-wide drop is then directed through another liquid reservoir, which removes all the other cellular materials, leaving only the purified estrogen to carry on.

“Then we pull (the droplet) out and do the analysis,” Wheeler says. This process is currently done by lab technicians and can take several days to produce results.

Wheeler says his results would be available in minutes. Experiments on the tissues of two women with breast cancer have shown that this process extracts enough estrogen to give doctors accurate levels, says Dr. Noha Mousa, the lead study author.

By combining the device with a microchip estrogen detector, the entire process could be exported from lab settings to doctors’ offices.

The pocket-sized devices could be used both to monitor women being treated for breast cancer and as a screening tool, says Mousa.

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