KU chemistry researchers develop technology that can detect cancer within one drop of blood

photo by: Nick Krug

The Integrated Science Building in the Central District of the University of Kansas is pictured on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

A team of University of Kansas researchers developed technology that can detect cancer in a patient with just one drop of blood, said Yong Zeng, a KU chemist who led the project.

The technology, a microfluidic chip, may allow for doctors to diagnose patients with cancer or other diseases faster and less invasively than current medical standards allow, Zeng recently told the Journal-World.

“The idea is to capture the information released by tumor cells at the very beginning before they grow into aggressive tissue or disease,” Zeng said. “The earlier the better.”

Zeng, who is an associate professor in KU’s chemistry department, worked with a research team including postdoctoral fellow Peng Zhang, chemistry graduate student Xin Zhou, and assistant professor Mei He to develop the chip. The group’s development was reported last week in Nature Biomedical Engineering, a scientific research journal.

The group worked with KU Cancer Center Deputy Director Andrew Godwin, who provided blood plasma samples of ovarian cancer patients, to test the chip’s design, according to a KU news release. The tests found the chip was able to detect the cancerous cells within the samples.

photo by: Contributed photo

Yong Zeng, KU associate professor of chemistry, led a group of researchers who developed technology that can identify cancerous cells in a single drop of blood.

Zeng said with current medical standards and practices, doctors cannot see cancerous tumors early because they are too small. Oftentimes when a tumor develops to a size that a doctor can see, it must be removed through surgery.

But because the chip only needs one drop of blood to identify cancerous cells at an early stage, doctors may be able to identify the cancer easier and then treat patients earlier to avoid risky surgeries, Zeng said.

“There is a risk, always, when you do surgery,” he said. “This noninvasive approach would minimize all those medical complications.”

But Zeng said it may be some time before the technology could be used on patients.

“We are still in the very early stages in terms of technology development,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go before we go to clinical trials, but that is the line we are (on).”

Additionally, the researchers are testing a similar companion device that aims to detect how patients are responding to a treatment for disease, which would help a doctor quickly and accurately adjust treatments for optimal results.

“That can give you better treatment efficiency, rather than wasting money or making people suffer too much,” Zeng said. “I think this is the future application of this technology.”

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