No more biopsies?

September 22, 2009 3:21:10 PM PDT
It's a routine test for cancer. It's also how doctors figure out if cancer treatments are working, but biopsies can be a painful process. Researchers are working on a blood test that could replace the prodding and surgery with a simple prick. John Shea suffers from both colon and prostate cancers. Going through chemotherapy is tough enough, but Shea says the biopsies for his prostate cancer were the worst part.

"I found it very painful," Shea said. "They had to take, I think it was 12 cultures, and it was like they took a taser gun."

Doctors are now testing a circulating tumor cell machine that could make biopsies a thing of the past. A tablespoon of Shea's blood is filtered through the machine and placed onto a genetically engineered chip about the size of a business card. The chip holds an antibody that traps abnormal cells.

"The chip itself is a breakthrough in engineering," said Dr. Richard Lee, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston.

Within six hours, the machine analyzes the blood and can detect one cancer cell among 1 billion healthy blood cells.

"We would hope that we would be able to, perhaps, eliminate the invasive biopsy," Dr. Lee said.

Routine blood tests tell doctors if Shea's chemo is working or if they need to be more aggressive -- the same as biopsies, minus the discomfort. "I wouldn't want to go through another one again," Shea said.

Taking some of the pain out of fighting cancer.

The technology is being tested in patients whose cancer has already spread. The future goal is to detect cancer at a much earlier stage, when it's most curable.

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