Working in collaboration with cancer and biotechnology experts from the Mayo Clinic, the researchers developed the technology that provided for the detection of tumour cells just by scanning surface veins through a laser.
When the tumour cells are hit by a laser, which scans across the diameter of the blood vessel 1,000 times per second, they glow and become visible, says Philip Low, Purdue's Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.
"Our method can detect cancer cells early in disease development and the test can be conducted frequently. Discovering the cancer early and knowing whether it has metastasised, or spread, greatly improves a patient's chance for successful treatment," Low said.
The researcher says that the new method for cancer detection is able to evaluate a much larger volume of blood than what can be drawn from a patient for analysis.
"In the initial stages of cancer, there are very few circulating tumour cells - cells that indicate the spread of cancer and initiate secondary tumour formation," Low said.
"By increasing the volume of blood analysed, we improve the sensitivity of the test and allow for earlier diagnosis. If there are two cancer cells in every 50 millilitres of blood, odds are the cells would not be found in a 10-milliliter blood sample. However, the cells would be found in the 100 millilitres of blood that flow through large veins each minute," he added.
Low said that the discovery of in vivo less invasive detection of circulating cancer cells in surface veins could lead to personalized treatment.
"Circulating tumour cells provide a benchmark for disease progression and precise monitoring of their levels could lead to personalized treatment. This technique allows us to quantify the amount of circulating tumour cells present, as opposed to tests that provide a 'positive' or 'negative' result," said the researcher.
"Through such precise monitoring, a physician could evaluate the response to chemotherapy and regularly adjust the dosage so that only the exact amount needed would be administered. This could reduce the time a patient is treated and the serious side effects that occur," he added.
Wei He, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biomedical Engineering who also worked on the project, said that the technique could help medical industry save millions of dollars in testing equipment.
He said that some of the costs and problems associated with testing drawn blood samples can be avoided by directly labelling tumour cells while they are in the bloodstream.
"One sample can require five to 10 test tubes during the course of sampling, processing and analysis such as handling, labeling and washing. In addition, large hospitals can have more than 300 cancer patients in one day. Such a large influx can cause delays in sample processing and delays can affect the results of analysis," he said.
The new cancer detection technique has been detailed in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.