Touching the Difference with Nanotechnology

The study represents one of the first times researchers have been able to take living cells from cancer patients and apply nanotechnology to analyze them and determine which were cancerous and which were not. The nano science measurements may provide a potential new method for detecting cancer, especially in cells from body cavity fluids where diagnosis using current methods is typically very challenging. The method also may aid in personalizing treatments for patients.

The researchers collected fluid from the chest cavities of patients with lung, breast and pancreatic cancers, a relatively non-invasive procedure. One problem with diagnosing metastatic disease in this setting is that cancer cells and normal cells in body cavity fluids look very similar under an optical microscope.

Employing one of the most valuable tools in the nanotechnology arsenal, the research team used an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) to measure cell softness. Since the cells being analyzed were less than half the diameter of a human hair, researchers needed a very precise and delicate instrument to measure resistance in the cell membrane. The AFM uses a minute, sharp tip on a spring to push against the cell surface and determine the degree of softness.

After probing a cell, the AFM assigns a value that represents how soft a cell is based on the resistance encountered. What the team found was that the cancer cells were much softer than the normal cells and they were similarly soft with very little variation in gradation. The normal, healthy cells from the same specimen were much stiffer than the cancer cells and, in fact, the softness values assigned to each group did not overlap at all, making diagnosis using this nanomechanical measurement easier and more accurate.; Source: University of California - Los Angeles