Ant farm-like testing platform reveals brain cancer’s deadliest cells

Glioblastoma is a deadly brain cancer with a very poor survival rate, but by understanding how certain cell types drive its spread doctors may be able to offer more effective treatments. Researchers have developed a new tool that shines a light on these dangerous machinations, with an ability to classify the deadliest cells to help gauge how aggressive a patient’s cancer might be.

The team calls its new laboratory test the Microfluidic Assay for quantification of Cell Invasion (MAqCI), and it builds on research carried out at Johns Hopkins University last year where scientists developed a tool to tell metastatic breast cancer cells from non-metastatic ones.

Hopeful that the technique could be applied to other cancer types, the same group of researchers teamed up with scientists at the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University to explore the possibilities. Glioblastoma, with median survival times ranging from six months to 29 months depending on its aggressiveness, presented a compelling target.

The device resembles an ant farm, consisting of Y-shaped tunnels that replicate the vascular conduits in the brain. A small number of cells are placed inside this device, with some moving through the channels more freely than others. By observing which are mobile and agile enough to squeeze through the tight spaces and go on to reproduce, the scientists can deduce which cells are most likely to drive metastasis.

This technique was put to the test on brain cancer cells taken from 28 patients, retrospectively assessing the potential deadliness of the cells and then predicting the length of survival in each case. It did so with 86 percent accuracy, according to the team, while in a separate, prospective experiment on five patients it achieved 100 percent accuracy.

By gauging the metastatic tendencies of the cells in this way, scientists can not only work out which cancers are likely to spread and prove fatal, but also study new ways to stop them in their tracks. But first, the team will look to build on these impressive early results through experiments involving larger cohorts of patients.

“Because we have the unique ability to identify those deadly cells, we envision utilizing this platform to screen potential therapeutics in order to effectively block the invasion and/or proliferation of these cells and ultimately prolong the survival of patients by putting precision medicine in practice,” said Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, senior author on the paper. “By subjecting these deadly cells to proteogenomic analysis, we will identify and characterize novel targets to stop these highly invasive and proliferative cells.”

The research was covered in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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