Our methods for detection and treatment of breast cancer still seem so crude.  We can’t really detect breast cancer until it’s been around for several years, and for treatment we remove body parts and give harsh treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.  Then cross our fingers and wait.  And to top it off, our methods of detection and treatment can lead to more cancer!

We need to do better.  It’s time for cancer detection, monitoring, and treatment to enter the 21st century.  But there is hope.  Knowledge from different disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, and computer technology, are meeting up with medicine and biology to create new advances.  One such advancing technology that may mean progress for breast cancer is the Lab-on-a-Chip.

Researchers in Toronto have developed a palm-sized lab-on-a-chip that can measure small amounts of estrogen in blood and tissue.  Estrogen levels of breast tissue have not been routinely measured because doing so with conventional methods required large amounts of tissue.  But the new device, using technology called microfluidics, can analyze the estrogen in samples that are 1000 times smaller than those needed for conventional methods.  Enough breast tissue can be obtained with a small needle prick.

Knowing the levels of estrogen in the breast could be an early indicator of breast cancer risk or of early breast cancer.  Being able to measure levels of estrogen could also provide a sophisticated method for assessing prevention or a method for monitoring of anti-estrogen treatment in breast cancer patients.

The device is in early development and might not be ready for “prime-time” for at least five years, according to Dr. Aaron Wheeler, the research chair of bioanalytical chemistry at the University of Toronto and a co-author of a report on the device published in the debut issue of Science Translational Medicine.  Dr. Wheeler and his colleagues reported using the device to accurately analyze tissue from two postmenopausal breast cancer patients.

Even though it is early, we may be on the verge of an explosion in knowledge and advancements with this technology.  Lab-on-a-chip technology is being developed for many areas of cancer detection and monitoring.  These devices perform different functions on minute droplets of fluid and cells on the surface of a microchip.  Many different lab functions are integrated together onto the chip and results can be ready in a few minutes.

For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins are looking at a chip to measure cancer cells’ ability to “detach” and migrate or metastasize.  Other researchers at the University of California Berkeley are using the technology to carry the vast new knowledge on genetics and cancer to the next level with study of the proteins involved (proteomics).

Let’s hope these advances get translated from benchside to bedside and help bring cancer detection and monitoring into the 21st century.

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