Researchers have developed a device that can separate various cell types in patient blood samples based on the cell size, which may one day enable rapid, inexpensive liquid biopsies to help clinicians detect cancer and develop targeted treatment plans. Findings from the research that led to the device are reported in Microsystems and Nanoengineering.

As liquid biopsies start to become more widespread, some labs and hospitals have been slow to adopt them because of cost or sample preparation time. Circulating tumor cells are present in only small quantities—levels close to 1 per 1 billion blood cells, meaning a typical 7.5 ml sample might have only 10 cancer cells compared to 40 billion blood cells, the researchers explained. 

The study results showed that the device identified 93% of the circulating tumor cells in blood samples the researchers had seeded with non-small cell lung cancer cells. When tested on blood taken directly from patients diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, the device found 75% of the cells.

Additional studies are planned to confirm the results and expand the device to also detect DNA from cancer cells in blood samples.