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New test under development could detect single cancer cell in blood

Announced in early January 2011, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to develop a tool that could identify as few as one or two cancer cells, known as circulating tumor cells, present in a patient’s blood sample. Among the participating scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital is David Ting, MD, recipient of a 2009 Pancreatic Cancer Action Network – AACR Fellowship grant. Dr. Ting’s funded project, which was completed in June 2010, was focused on better identification and detection of these circulating tumor cells.

This technology will likely not be available on the market for several more years. Being able to detect and analyze tumor cells from a patient’s blood sample would be much less invasive and painful than a surgical biopsy, with fewer potential complications.

At this point, initial aims are to determine the usefulness of this tool in identifying circulating tumor cells in a blood sample from a known cancer patient. With many solid cancers, including pancreatic, the biggest threat to the patient occurs once the tumor has metastasized, or spread to other organs. The hope is that catching the tumor cells in the bloodstream may allow early intervention in the metastatic process, before the cells have invaded and damaged other organs.

An Omaha news source interviewed Tony Hollingsworth, PhD of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, regarding this finding. Dr. Hollingsworth is a renowned expert in pancreatic cancer research, and a member and former chair of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Scientific Advisory Board. Dr. Hollingsworth expressed hope that this technology is a step in the right direction, but cautions that once the cancer cells have escaped the original tumor, the disease may have already reached a critical stage. However, the potential to detect circulating tumor cells is a powerful tool, and will hopefully lead to earlier and more effective diagnostic options.

Click here to read the CNN article on this technology.
Click here to see the interview with Dr. Tony Hollingsworth.

For more information about this study or other questions about pancreatic cancer diagnosis or treatment, please contact a Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) Associate toll-free at 877-272-6226 or email pals@pancan.org. PALS Associates are available M-F 7am-5pm Pacific Time.

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