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It’s all in the blood – researchers unlock key to ‘liquid biopsies’


Researchers have developed a method for catching cancer cells circulating in the blood, potentially providing doctors with valuable information on a cancer patient’s prognosis and response to treatment.

Professor Benjamin Thierry and Dr Yuan Wan, researchers from the Ian Wark Institute at the University of South Australia, have developed a polystyrene nanoplastic that readily adheres to cells, a promising advance in efforts to improve the way cancers are detected and tracked in the body.

Traditionally, tumour tissue biopsies are performed to monitor mutations in cancer patients over time, including during treatment. But the approach is invasive, and tissue biopsies are essentially incomplete because only segments of the tumour, rather than the whole growth, can be sampled.

But so-called ‘liquid biopsies’ could circumvent these limitations by taking advantage of the fact that tumour cells are constantly dying and leaking DNA into the blood stream.

There is debate about whether blood contains the whole story of cancer and its mutations, but liquid biopsies are seen to be a useful tool to facilitate the monitoring of cancer patients with minimal discomfort.

The substance developed by Professor Thierry and Dr Wan has the potential to meet the need for rapid, affordable and unbiased methods to isolate rare tumour cells from the blood stream.

The researchers engraved tiny, nano-sized dents onto the surface of plastic polystyrene to create an attractive surface for cells to stick to.

In testing, more than 95 per cent of tumour cells present in blood samples adhered to the rough nanoplastic surfaces, and could be easily identified among blood cells using automated microscopy.

The researchers said this simple and effective method could be a powerful tool for future cancer research.

Kirsty Waterford