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New Test Shows Promise In Analyzing Lung Tumors

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Running a teaspoon of blood through a Harvard University-developed device may enable doctors to tailor lung-cancer treatment to the severity of the disease in an individual patient, a study said.

Doctors found that the microchip-based device, about the size of a business card, could tell when patients with non-small-cell lung cancers were worsening, according to a study in today's New England Journal of Medicine. The technique may eventually help doctors decide which patients should get powerful drugs with toxic side effects and spare the ones who wouldn't benefit, said Daniel A. Haber, the senior author.

Not only would the device show doctors more quickly when treatments are working, it could also allow researchers to begin to discover what makes cancers spread. Little is known about metastasis, the process by which the disease spreads from its original organ to another. The device captures what is known as circulating tumor cells.

"We've never been able to study human tumor cells as they metastasize," said Haber, professor of oncology at Harvard and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, in a telephone interview Wednesday. "If we can study cells causing metastasis, we can develop drugs and treatments against them."

The technology was licensed to CellPoint Diagnostics Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., Haber said.

With more refinements, the device could be on the market as soon as two years from now, he said. Northgate Capital and Mohr Davidow Ventures are among the investors in CellPoint, according to the company's website.

The cells were identified in the 27 patients studied. The scientists identified rare tumor mutations, called T790M, which were linked to shorter periods in which patients' cancer didn't worsen. Those with the mutation lived 7.7 months without the cancer worsening; those without lived 16.5 months.

The device could be used in ailments other than lung cancer, he said. A previous study in Nature showed that it captured tumor cells in patients diagnosed with prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer and pancreatic cancer as well. The cells weren't analyzed for mutations.

The researchers ran about a teaspoon of a patient's blood through the device, which has about 80,000 tiny pillars, or microposts, coated with an antigen "glue" that captures non-blood cells.

The normal blood flows through the device while the cancer cells stick, enabling scientists to analyze them.

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