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Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have created a new microfluidic device to carry out a cell-based test for the diagnosis, monitoring and customised therapy of cancer.

Intended to grow personalised cancer cell clusters, the device is designed to facilitate precise control of fluids and the culturing of circulating tumour cells (CTCs), which are to be obtained from a patient’s blood through liquid biopsy.

The device is expected to serve as an alternative option for tumour tissue biopsy procedures that are considered invasive and painful.

While standard CTC expansion techniques require about six months or more, the new device takes less than two weeks for cluster formation.

“The device is expected to serve as an alternative option for tumour tissue biopsy procedures that are considered invasive and painful.”

The CTCs grow in the microwells embedded into the device and can be assessed to obtain real-time disease information.

NUS Biomedical Engineering department professor Lim Chwee Teck said: “Tumour biopsies involve highly invasive procedures that can cause great discomfort and can also be expensive. Hence, tissue biopsies are generally used as a diagnostic tool only before and after cancer treatment.

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“In contrast, the evaluation of CTCs from liquid biopsies can provide regular, ongoing information for assessing metastatic risk, prognosis and treatment efficacy.”

The researchers believe that the ability of the CTC clusters to ‘closely mimic’ the actual cancer cells can allow evaluation of the effectiveness of various anticancer therapies.

In addition, the device enables simultaneous testing of two or more drugs at different concentrations, and is expected to pave way for the development of tailored treatments for individual patients.

Lim added: “A critical advantage of our approach is its potential to predict a patient’s response to therapeutic treatment by performing tests on their own cancer cells.”

The researchers further hope that the device can be a cost-effective and less-invasive option for routine disease progression monitoring in hospitals.

Currently, they are evaluating the assay with breast cancer cells, and plan to use other types of cancer cells as well.