An advanced blood test uses a blood sample, digital microscope, and an image-processing algorithm to distinguish suspect circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from healthy cells — a method that could yield information comparable to some types of surgical biopsies, according to findings from five new papers by scientists from The Scripps Research Institute, Scripps Health, and collaborating cancer physicians.

The test, called HD-CTC, labels cells in a patient's blood sample in a way that distinguishes possible CTCs — breakaway cells from patients' solid tumors — from ordinary red and white blood cells. It then uses a digital microscope and an image-processing algorithm to isolate the suspect cells with sizes and shapes unlike those of healthy cells. Just as in a surgical biopsy, a pathologist can examine the images of the suspected CTCs to eliminate false positives and note their morphologies. This basic setup can be modified with different cell-labeling and image-processing techniques.

Results from one study point to the possibility of using the HD-CTC blood test not only to evaluate already-diagnosed cancer, but also to help detect cancer in people who are unaware they have it. Scripps Research Associate Professor Peter Kuhn, PhD, senior investigator of the new studies and primary inventor of the high-definition blood test, intends to study the use of HD-CTC as a potential screening test and to develop it further for use in clinical monitoring and cancer research.

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