Sound waves are the latest weapon in the fight against cancer


Diagnosing patients with cancer is an often difficult process based on a variety of factors such as the consistency of adhering to regular check-ups, the doctor’s ability to implement the right tests, and periodic self-examinations. And sometimes even in the face of all these strategies cancer can be left undetected. According to a UC San Francisco study, “just 1 milliliter of blood contains about 5 billion red blood cells, and only about one to 10 cancer cells.”

Identifying these circulating tumor cells (CTCs) is critical in determining what kind of cancer a patient has and at what stage, both of which are essential for adopting the right cancer fighting treatment. Currently, oncologists use a method of separation involving antibodies that bind to CTCs. Unfortunately, doctors need to know what type of cancer cells the patient has since you need specific antibodies to bind to specific cancer cells. Another complication with the use of antibodies is the fact they risk mutating the cancer cells to which they bind, making future treatment less effective.

Why sound waves are more effective

sound waves

Image Credit: Peng Li et al, 2015

To solve this problem, researchers from MIT, Penn State University and Carnegie Mellon University have joined forces to devise and refine a new technique involving sound waves to separate CTCs from normal blood cells, leading to increased detection without compromising the effectiveness of future cancer treatment. The following is an excerpt from Popular Science explaining the process:

The device consists of two acoustic transducers on either side of a very small channel. The wave-producing transducers are angled in a way that they create a “standing wave,” which has sections of high and low pressure. When the researchers place a blood sample in the channel, the standing sound wave pushes cells to either side of the channel. The peaks and troughs of pressure end up separating the cancerous cells from the regular, healthy cells, due to the CTCs’ varying shape and compressibility.

After running the experiment twice with two different types of CTCs, the researchers were able to separate 83 percent of CTCs from normal blood cells. Next steps include increasing the efficiency of the device both in terms of identification and speed. The ultimate goal is to place these sound wave devices in clinical settings for the benefit of doctors and patients hoping to find rapid treatment against the cancer the ails them.

(featured image: Christine Daniloff)

About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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