Breakthrough in cancer research

December 03, 2007

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PARIS, Dec 2: A nano-scale tool that distinguishes soft cancerous cells from stiffer normal ones could save lives by making it easier to diagnosis cancer, according to a study released on Sunday.

Using atomic force microscopes, a team of US scientists showed for the first time that the surface of living cancer cells were more than 70 per cent softer than their healthy counterparts.

This measurable difference in elasticity held true across lung, breast and pancreatic cancers, and could provide a powerful means of detecting malignant cells that might otherwise escape notice, said the study, published in the British journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Currently, pathologists examine surgically-removed tissue by placing stained, thinly-sliced sections on a glass slide and looking at them under a microscope for signs of the disease.Another type of test for differentiating cancerous and normal cells uses antibodies to pinpoint certain proteins.

“However, this complex process of cancer diagnosis is not always 100 per cent accurate because normal cells can sometimes look like cancerous cells,” said MIT scientist Subra Suresh in a commentary, also published in Nature.

The frequency of diagnostic error for patients who have lung cancer may be as high as 15 per cent due to sampling errors or faulty interpretation, earlier studies have shown. Combining existing methods with the new technique, however, could help reduce this margin.

In experiments conducted at the University of California in Los Angeles, a team of researchers led by James Gimzewski removed body fluid from suspected cancer patients.

Using atomic force micro-

scopes — a nanotechnology gadget measured in units 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair -— they applied minute amounts of pressure on individual cells with a sharp probe attached to a mechanical arm.—AFP