A sound way to fight cancer

The device is not much larger than an American penny. Fluids flow through channels, dyed green here, and are hit with sound waves emitted by yellow acoustic transducers, which separate individual components.
The device is not much larger than an American penny. Fluids flow through channels, dyed green here, and are hit with sound waves emitted by yellow acoustic transducers, which separate individual components.PHOTO: COURTESY OF M. WU, M. DAO, S. SURESH, Y. SADOVSKY AND T. J. HUANG

There is a new weapon in the ever-growing arsenal to detect cancer early: sound.

Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) incoming president Subra Suresh is part of a research team developing acoustic technology that can sift exceedingly tiny particles from blood without having to send samples to a laboratory.

These particles, known as exosomes, are released by every cell in the body and can be found in all types of bodily fluids. They are around 130 nanometres in length, and can serve as markers of cancer before cancer cells even begin to appear in the blood.

A human hair ranges from 75,000 to 100,000 nanometres wide.

The team's prototype device is smaller than a credit card.

Blood passes through channels inside it, and is hit by sound waves emitted from tiny tools placed beside the channel known as acoustic transducers.

The sound waves will cause components within the blood to separate according to size, which are then filtered into different channels automatically.

This brings many advantages compared with spinning samples within a centrifuge, the current method of separating the components within blood. Centrifuges take days to separate particles and the spinning action damages exosomes, and ultimately only up to 40 per cent of exosomes remain.

This new technology requires only 10 minutes to complete, is much gentler on samples, and can accurately capture more than 80 per cent of exosomes present in blood. There are many potential applications of this technology beyond finding cancer, such as detecting diseases affecting the brain, kidney, liver and placenta.

Professor Suresh has worked on the technology since 2014 with other members of the research team from Duke University, the University of Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This is Prof Suresh's first research paper from NTU.

He said: "We will also continue to do experimental and computational work on how the properties and movement of cells through blood vessels and organs influence the onset and progression of human diseases. "

Dr Yoel Sadovsky, director of the Magee-Womens Research Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the technology: "This will add a new dimension to research into 'liquid biopsies' and facilitate the clinical use of extracellular vesicles to inform the physiology and health of organs that are hard to access, such as the placenta during human pregnancy."

Jose Hong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2017, with the headline 'A sound way to fight cancer'. Print Edition | Subscribe