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MGH Team Invents Blood Test To Spot Cancer Cells

By Ron Sanders, WBZ-TV
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(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — Cancer researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital say a test that can transform care for many types of cancer, including breast, lung, colon and prostate, is getting a $30 million boost from Johnson & Johnson to bring it to the market and the bedside of patients within five years.

In a Charlestown lab, the scientists are using equipment that can spot a single cancer cell among a billion healthy ones in blood.

Those stray cancer cells mean a tumor has or may spread or metastasize. The researchers say the test they are developing is like a “liquid biopsy” that avoids painful needle penetration to determine what treatment is best for each patient’s tumor.

“The greatest promise of the test really is to be able to sample tumors without having to do a biopsy, without having to do an invasive procedure and to do it over and over again during the course of a patient’s treatment,” explained Dr. Daniel Haber, Director of the MGH Cancer Center.

WBZ-TV’s Ron Sanders reports.

Gailanne Reeh, C.E.O. of Arbor Associates, a human services firm in Boston, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2007. She is receiving chemotherapy. She finds the new test exciting but cautions it is not a cure for cancer.

“I was on a drug that took two months before we discovered it wasn’t working. Well, you know, we might have been able to find that out in a month before it continued to metastasize…It’s not a cure. It’s really is more of a tool that is going to be less invasive to people, more timely information for us to be able to know whether a drug is working or not working and I do believe that it will, at least in the lab, learn more about the mechanisms of cancer cells,” said Reeh.

The test uses a microchip resembling a lab slide covered with 78,000 tiny posts. Those posts are coated with antibodies that attract and bind to tumor cells like glue. A patient’s blood sample, about a teaspoon full, is flushed across the chip. The cancer cells stick and stain makes them visible to researchers.

Mehmet Toner, PhD, a bioengineer who helped design the test, said it has a “huge potential impact” in the management of cancer patients. “We can turn cancer into a chronic disease by individualizing the treatment for each patient and give him the right drug at the right time at the right dose,” said Toner explaining that, perhaps, in 7 to 10 years the test could be used for cancer screenings in routine physical exams in your doctor’s office.

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