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Device Spots Deadly Melanoma, Cell by Cell
Jan 2012
COLUMBIA, Mo., Jan. 11, 2012 — A device based on laser-induced ultrasound technology can detect single melanoma cells in blood samples at a fraction of the cost of current cancer tests.

Research conducted at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center has yielded a new tool to aid the fight against metastatic melanoma. A prototype is now poised for commercial development. John Viator invented the device, and has recently signed royalty and licensing agreements with the university, clearing the way for his newly formed company, Viator Technologies Inc., to bring this intellectual property into production.

Melanoma, an aggressive cancer, is characterized by skin growths that of themselves aren’t seriously dangerous but that can become a quick killer if cancer cells detach and enter the bloodstream, then lodge and grow elsewhere in the body. When melanoma cells metastasize in this manner, patients often live less than a year, and fewer than 20 percent live five years. That is why early detection is important.

But finding metastatic melanoma as it spreads through the body has proved difficult. Detection with MRI or CT imaging equipment requires tumors that are at least a few millimeters in diameter (similar to a grain of rice), at which size they already consist of millions of cells.

With Viator’s test, scientists can look in the blood system for single melanoma cells that are propagating through the body, he explained.

“This is much more effective because you’re looking for a cancer sooner than you could ever detect it with an imaging test,” Viator said. “That’s good for the patient, and it’s good for the clinician, because if you can find cancer when it’s just at the cellular level, then you’re fighting a small number of cells versus trying to fight a tumor the size of a softball that’s growing around your kidney.”

Viator has developed a prototype device, which, when refined into a commercial product, should be about the size of a small copy machine. The device would allow clinicians to put blood samples into the tool, which would then provide a readout of the sample’s results in about 10 minutes. Compared to current techniques for testing, this new machine has the advantages of being inexpensive, fast, compact and easy to use, along with offering earlier detection.

At the center of the device is a photoacoustic technology called laser-induced ultrasound. Viator uses this tool in conjunction with the properties of density, light, heat and color to cause cancer cells to react in a manner that makes them detectable and distinguishable from surrounding cells.

A first step in the testing process is using a centrifuge to separate a patient’s blood into white and red blood cells. Melanoma cells are about the same density as white blood cells but less dense than red blood cells, so melanoma cells are naturally thrown in with white blood cells as the blood separates. The resulting batch of white blood cells (plus any cancer cells present) is then pumped through narrow tubing that contains a tiny glass box, where the cells are hit with a short pulse of high-intensity laser light as they pass by. Since white objects reflect light, the white blood cells are not affected, but any cell with pigment will absorb the light. The intense laser beam heats such a cell rapidly, causing thermoelastic expansion, which in turn causes the expanding cell to emit a measurable pressure wave. Detection equipment senses this photoacoustic wave and thus locates the cancer cell.

Using this method, pigmented melanoma cells stand out and can be separated from the healthy white blood cells, which then are individually tested using biomolecular assays or imaging.

“Not all melanoma cells are the same,” Viator explained. “You can do some molecular tests and find out (things such as) do they have this genetic type? Or do they have these cell surface markers? We know that such-and-such a cell responds really well to this type of drug, so you could personalize your cancer therapy, potentially, by capturing the cells you’ve detected in the blood sample and understanding the disease better.”

New drugs and new device together might revolutionize treatment

Currently, treatment tools for melanoma include surgery and a drug, interferon, which is only about 20 percent effective, Viator said. But two new melanoma drugs have been approved this year, and a dozen more are in Phase III trials.

“The availability of melanoma therapies is going to explode,” Viator said. “The more therapies there are, the more valuable this [photoacoustic technology] will be, because it can track response to disease.”

John Viator, associate professor of biomedical engineering and dermatology, demonstrates a new photoacoustic method with a tabletop device that scans a lymph node biopsy with laser pulses. This method could help doctors identify the stage of melanoma with more accuracy. (Image: University of Missouri)

Initially, the tool will only detect and monitor metastatic melanoma. But Viator’s lab is continuing research, with the goal of using photoacoustic methods to detect other cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.

Due to the machine’s comparatively low cost, Viator is confident that early cancer diagnosis will become more accessible because it could be available in places where medical facilities can’t justify purchasing a much higher-priced MRI machine.

Unfortunately for cancer patients, the new device may not be available for a few more years, as it has not passed FDA tests for safety and effectiveness. Viator is confident, however, that these required tests will demonstrate that his device is highly reliable. The machine can grab and save any suspect cell; therefore, these cells can be examined microscopically or genetically to confirm their identity.

Researchers can begin using invention soon

The machine does not need FDA clearance before it is used for research. Scientists in academia or industry could use the device for cancer studies as soon as it is produced. Thus, companies testing new cancer drugs could use the machine to assess their drugs’ effectiveness.

The desktop device should be available to researchers by the end of next year; after two or three more years, it may be commercially available for clinical use, Viator said.

Viator Technologies Inc. formed in March; that company now has the exclusive license to commercialize the intellectual property involved with the device and its patent. The university owns the patent; the institution will be paid royalties on any future sales. Because he is the inventor who generated the intellectual property, Viator, as an individual, will also receive a percentage of patent royalties.

At this time, only the prototype has been built; no product has been produced for sale, and no orders have been received.

Although there are still a lot of unknowns and risk, the machine could offer significantly earlier detection of cancer at a cost comparatively lower than that of current methods.

For more information, visit:  

Americasbiomolecular assaysBiophotonicsBond Life Sciences Centerbreast cancercancer detectionCTFDAimagingJohn Viatorlaser-induced ultrasoundmelanoma detectionmetastatic melanoma detectionMissouriMRIphotoacoustic methodphotoacoustic technologyphotoacousticsprostate cancerResearch & Technologysingle melanoma cell detectionUniversity of MissouriViator Technologies Inc.

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