Circulating tumor cells trapping on a porous membrane using microfluidics. (Credit: Florina Silvia Iliescu)

A new generation of pathology labs mounted on chips is set to revolutionize the detection and treatment of cancer by using devices as thin as a human hair to analyze bodily fluids. The technology, known as microfluidics, promises inexpensive, portable devices that not only could enable widespread screening for early signs of cancer but also could help to develop personalized treatments for patients.

A wide range of microfluidic devices are being designed to isolate cancer biomarkers. Complex structures, such as forked flow channels, pillars, spirals, and pools, precisely sieve and control flow rates, while surfaces are lined with molecules that attract specific species. Some devices also use electrical, magnetic, or acoustic fields to help select the biomarker target and even have smart, built-in electronic circuits for data processing.

There are already devices on the market that isolate circulating tumor cells, but researchers are now developing more sensitive and faster systems for many different cancer biomarkers.

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