Caring Currents

Discovered: A "Lint Brush" that Removes Cancer Cells from the Blood

Last updated: Dec 24, 2008

time to sweep out
Image by Vali... used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

What's more important than curing cancer? What about killing off free-floating cancer cells early, before they have a chance to grow into tumors?

Scientists took a big step forward on this front with a study this week about a technology they dubbed a "lint brush" that "sweeps" cancer cells out of the bloodstream. Michael King, a biomedical engineer at Cornell University working at the University of Rochester, developed a tiny, implantable device that -- theoretically -- can filter out and destroy free-flowing cancer cells in the bloodstream before they spread to other parts of the body.

King's research, to be published in Biotechnology and Bioengineering, takes advantage of two naturally occuring proteins that together function as a kind of deadly magnet, attracting free-floating cancer cells, then killing them off.

It works like this: A tiny, tube-like device coated with a special type of protein called selectins is implanted in a peripheral blood vessel. Selectins, which are part of the body's natural injury defense mechanism, normally go to the site of an injury, then recruit white blood cells to fight potential infection. In King's research, the selectins were used to attract tumor cells instead of white blood cells. Once the cancer cells are "caught" by the selecten, a second protein (called by the acronym TRAIL, but don't worry about it) is used to program the cells to die off.

The kicker: Because the cells are now programmed to self-destruct, the tube can release them back into the bloodstream to die, freeing itself to capture new cells. In one pass, the tube was shown to kill 30 percent of colon and prostate cancer cells. Subsequent passes would kill more cells, and the researchers believe the technology could eventually work against many kinds of cancer.

Those of us caring for loved ones with cancer know all too well how crucial discoveries like this could be. We all have the stories and scars to show for it: My father, whose cancer was detected at Stage IV, is now gone; two dear friends with ovarian and breast cancer both thankfully caught at Stage I are -- knock on wood and light a candle -- now returning to normal, healthy lives.

With 90 percent of early-stage cancers curable, compared with only 10 percent of late-stage cancers, catching and killing cancer cells early essentially amounts to a commuted death sentence.

King's research is still in the early stages, and nowhere near ready for prime time. However, the study has a lot of scientists excited because it takes us in the direction we want to go. Let's hope those who fund cancer research offer King -- and the others like him toiling on the front lines of high-tech cancer detection and cure -- nice, big research grants so they can put these tools to work for us sooner rather than later. It's the type of gift all of us in Cancer World would like to receive.