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Detection of cancer cells in a microfluidic device Return to case studies page

Benjamin Thierry, SA node - University of South Australia
Good health
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in women. The common HER2 status of a breast cancer is primarily responsible for this disease being the most aggressive of all.

A device fabricated at ANFF could provide an ultra-sensitive early-detection system for free cancer cells circulating in peripheral blood, as well cells over expressing HER2 proteins, an indicator of the HER2 status.

Associate Professor Benjamin Thierry pioneered the microfluidic device in the ANFF-SA laboratories at the University of South Australia. Patient’s blood would be introduced into the microfluidic device. The blood would come into contact with 3D features in the device coated with specific monoclonal antibodies. Select cancer cells will attach to the antibody and can be later identified using a confocal microscope (see image).

“This technique has proven effective in detecting very low concentrations of cancer cells, around 2-3 per milliliter of blood. It provides an opportunity to develop a more reliable means of diagnosis than present methods, which have frequent false-negative readings,” said Thierry. “It is also less disruptive to the tumour as it doesn’t require a biopsy.”

ANFF laboratories have not only helped make the prototype, they have also engineered the device such that it can be produced on a large scale. It is made from PDMS, a cheap polymer that can be molded into the device from a master fabricated using traditional semiconductor processing techniques. The most expensive part of the process is coating the surface with antibodies.

“Being able to manufacture cheap disposable devices will make this early detection system easily accessible to oncologists around the world,” said Thierry.

“In the future, such devices could enable doctors to select the most appropriate and personalized therapy to fight metastatic cancer and significantly improve patient care.”