Cell hunters: the quest to diagnose pancreatic cancer early

Sunitha Nagrath, Ph.D.

pancreatic cancerEditor’s note: Cell Hunters is a series focusing on members of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center. One diagnostic tool they are advancing involves detecting pancreatic cancer cells in the bloodstream before any sign of cancer is obvious through current diagnostic techniques. The successful hunt for these cells would result in a tool for earlier detection, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Most other cancers have multiple choices for both early detection tools and treatment options. In the case of pancreatic cancer, there is no early detection tool yet, but one is under development at the University of Michigan. Researchers drawn from a number of U-M schools and colleges are collaborating to create a reliable test for the early detection of pancreatic tumor cells circulating in the blood.

Sunitha Nagrath, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemical engineering, leads the team. In 2013 they developed a device which uses both microfluidics and nanotechnology to capture circulating tumor cells from blood samples of pancreatic, breast, and lung cancer patients. The device also supports the cells’ growth for further analysis. Microfluidic technology like this for liquid biopsy is revolutionizing what we know about cells at the genetic level and is being used in both basic science and clinical research.

Now, Dr. Nagrath and her team are customizing the device at the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center to look for elusive pancreatic tumor cells.

“Once you detect circulating tumor cells, you can tell a lot about the disease, for example, the kind of cancer, its genetic makeup, how it responds to the environment and therapies, how aggressive the cancer is and so on. For someone with pancreatic cancer, the only way currently to know these things is through studying a biopsy,” she says.

Dr. Nagrath believes that devices like the one her team is customizing will someday be able to detect pancreatic cancer early, analyze the cells to determine the best targeted therapy for the patient, and monitor the circulating tumor cells over time to see how they are responding to treatment – all before a solid tumor is big enough to be seen using conventional imaging tests like CT or MRI.

The device uses a specialized microchip to capture cancer cells as blood flows over the chip. The chip knows what to look for because it has been told to target a specific marker. Once the rest of the fluids are washed away, researchers count the remaining cells and extract the genomic information. In the case of pancreatic tumor cells, a recent advance using nanomaterial graphene oxide by Dr. Nagrath’s team has made the chip ultra-sensitive, which was necessary in order to capture the elusive pancreatic tumor cells.

“It is a huge challenge to find and measure pancreatic tumor cells. There may be only a dozen or so of these cells circulating with billions of other cells in the blood, and they look and behave a lot like all the other cells. Imagine running a comb through a haystack to look for a needle,” she says.

As work on the microfluidic device continues, it should become sensitive enough to look at a small amount of blood and reliably determine if a patient has – or doesn’t have – circulating pancreatic tumor cells.

Dr. Nagrath will label this research a success when she can process 20 milliliters of blood (about four teaspoons) quickly and reliably in a few hours for one patient and learn the number of pancreatic tumor cells, the genetic characteristics of these cells, and how a patient’s disease might respond to a targeted therapy.

“The incredible diversity of clinical and engineering colleagues is essential to achieving our research goal, it is so strong here at Michigan! This kind of multidisciplinary collaboration is going to change the cancer detection paradigm,” she says.

Read Part 1/Diane Simeone, M.D. here.

Sunitha thumbnailDr. Nagrath’s research goal is to bring the next generation of engineering tools to patient care, especially in cancer. Her major focus of research is to develop advanced mciro-technologies (MEMS tools) for understanding cell trafficking in cancer through isolation, characterization and study of circulating cell in peripheral blood of cancer patients. She would like to focus her lab’s efforts on designing and developing smart chips using microfluidics and nanotechnology to make an impact in medicine and the life sciences. Her goal is to create cutting edge engineering solutions for clinical medicine with novel translational biomedical research tools. She strongly believes in building a team where engineers, biologists, and clinicians will come together to solve the complex problems with better approaches.


Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.