Researchers have developed a gentle, contact-free method for separating circulating tumor cells from blood samples that is fast and efficient enough for clinical use. Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) contain information about the tumor that are associated with prognosis and whether certain treatments may be effective. The ability to quickly and efficiently harvest and grow these cells would enable “liquid biopsies” capable of providing diagnosis and suggestions for treatment strategies based on individual CTC profiling.

A new device roughly the size of a penny uses sound waves to gently separate circulating tumor cells from biological fluids. (Credit: Duke University)

The platform is based on sound waves capable of separating CTCs from a 7.5-mL vial of blood with at least 86 percent efficiency in less than an hour. With additional improvements, the researchers hope the technology will form the basis of a new test through an inexpensive, disposable chip.

The technology works by setting up a standing sound wave at an angle to a fluid flowing through a tiny channel. Because sound is nothing more than a pressure wave, this sets up pockets of pressure that push on particles suspended in the liquid as they pass through. This acoustic force acts more strongly on the larger, more rigid cancer cells than on normal blood cells, pushing the CTCs into a separate channel for collection.

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