A small labyrinth in a plas­tic box can sep­a­rate can­cer cells from the rest of the blood cells. This method helps doc­tors dis­cover rare types of can­cer and tar­get the treat­ment.

Science Illustrated - - CONTENTS -

Ev­ery­thing you need to know about your weird an­ces­tors (and more)

MEDICINE Blood can hide mi­cro­scopic can­cer cells at var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment. If doc­tors can an­a­lyse them in­di­vid­u­ally, give vi­tal clues about the dis­ease – the genes in the cells hold in­for­ma­tion about the type of can­cer, and whether it is spread­ing.

But the cells are very dif­fi­cult to get to. For ev­ery bil­lion blood cells, there is one can­cer cell. But now, sci­en­tists from Univer­sity of Michi­gan, US, have de­vel­oped a method to ex­tract the mi­cro­scopic cells. They pass blood sam­ples from pa­tients through a small labyrinth. Its shape has been spe­cially de­signed and ex­ploits the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the blood, so that large can­cer cells are sep­a­rated from small blood cells. In an ex­per­i­ment, sci­en­tists passed the blood through the labyrinth twice and got one can­cer cell for ev­ery 600 blood cells – enough to an­a­lyse the can­cer cells in­di­vid­u­ally, en­abling the doc­tors to iden­tify their type and stage and maybe de­velop a cus­tom-made treat­ment.

Curves and sharp corners sort the blood cells

A long path, soft curves and many bends make the blood con­tent sep­a­rate in lay­ers, en­abling sci­en­tists to sin­gle out can­cer cells that hide in the crowd. Long tube places cells in a row 1 At the en­trance, the cells are one big mess. But when passed through the 600-mm-long labyrinth, both can­cer cells and blood cells form a line in the mid­dle of the tube.

Whirls put can­cer cells in lay­ers

2 The blood runs through 11 curves and around 56 corners. Whirls form in the curves, press­ing the cells against the walls and push­ing them back. The size de­ter­mines the speed of a cell, and thus where it is placed.

Four lanes sep­a­rate cell types

3 At the end, the labyrinth branches out into four tubes of dif­fer­ing sizes. They col­lect the con­tent of the blood and sep­a­rate large while cor­pus­cles and can­cer cells from other smaller blood com­po­nents. In an ex­per­i­ment, sci­en­tists passed the blood through the labyrinth twice to get a con­cen­trated sam­ple of us­able can­cer cells to an­a­lyse.

THREE KINDS OF CELLS ARE SEP­A­RATED White cor­pus­cles Can­cer cells Red cor­pus­cles and other blood cells COL­LECT­ING TUBE Can­cer cells flow through a spe­cial tube, al­low­ing sci­en­tists to count and closely study the in­di­vid­ual cells.

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