Listening to the sound of skin cancer

October 16, 2006

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia can now detect the spread of skin cancer cells through the blood by literally listening to their sound. The unprecedented, minimally invasive technique causes melanoma cells to emit noise, and could let oncologists spot early signs of metastases -- as few as 10 cancer cells in a blood sample -- before they even settle in other organs. The results of the successful experimental tests appear in the Oct. 15 issue of the journal Optics Letters, published by the Optical Society of America.

The team's method, called photoacoustic detection, combines laser techniques from optics and ultrasound techniques from acoustics, using a laser to make cells vibrate and then picking up the characteristic sound of melanoma cells. In a clinical test, doctors would take a patient's blood sample and separate the red blood cells and the plasma. In a healthy person, the remaining cells would be white blood cells, but in a melanoma patient the sample may contain cancer cells. To find out, doctors would put the sample in saline solution and expose it to rapid-fire sequences of brief but intense blue-laser pulses, each lasting just five billionths of a second.

In lab tests, the Missouri-Columbia team was able to detect melanoma cells obtained from actual patients, showing that the method can spot as few as 10 cells in saline solution. The dark, microscopic granules of melanin contained in the cancer cells absorb the energy bursts from the blue-laser light, going through rapid cycles of expanding as they heat up and shrinking as they cool down. These sudden changes generate loud cracks -- relative to the granules' size -- which propagate in the solution like tiny tsunamis.

The sound waves produced by melanin are high-frequency ultrasounds, meaning that they cannot be heard by the human ear, even if amplified. However, researchers can pick them up with special microphones and analyze them with a computer. Other human cells do not contain pigments with the same color as melanin, so the melanin signature is easy to tell apart from other noises, said John Viator, a biomedical engineer at Missouri-Columbia and a coauthor of the Optics Letters paper. And the presence of melanin granules in the blood is an unmistakable sign. "The only reason there could be melanin in the human blood is that there would be melanoma cells," he said.

This new blood test would allow for a much more timely diagnosis of metastasis and with early diagnosis comes early treatment and increased likelihood for survival. As one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, if a melanoma is not removed at its earliest stages, it will penetrate into the deep layers of the skin. From there its cells can break off and pass into the circulatory and lymphatic systems, spreading to other organs and creating metastases even after the original melanoma has been surgically removed.

An earlier metastasis warning, as this blood test provides, could alert oncologists to the cancer when it's at its earliest stages in other parts of the body and help them to begin a quicker counterattack, for example by administering chemotherapy, said Viator. "Our method can help doctors plan treatment to battle the spread of the disease," he said.

Current techniques to monitor the disease spread and recurrence have proven to be inaccurate, time-consuming and painful, according to the researchers. This new blood test would enable physicians to have a more accurate method of monitoring for metastasis.

In fact, the blood-test procedure could be performed regularly such as in screenings for high-risk patients, requiring just a small sample of blood, and its results would be almost immediate. "It could take just 30 minutes to find out if there are any circulating cancer cells," Viator said.

Other labs have used photoacoustic detection for scanning mouse brains and for mapping port-wine stains (birthmarks), but this would be its first application to oncology, Viator said. The team is now planning a pilot study on actual blood samples from patients, and larger clinical studies will need to be done, but the test shows great promise for early detection of the spread of this disease, according to Viator.

The team is also working with other Missouri-Columbia scientists in the veterinary college and the department of surgery to extend the reach of its technique to other types of cancer. Because of melanin, melanoma is the only type of cancer whose cells will strongly absorb all wavelengths of light, emitting ultrasounds that stand out from those of other cells. But artificial materials could also be introduced, to act as light absorbers -- and as noise makers. "We're looking for methods to attach other kinds of absorbers to cancer cells," Viator said. For example, he said, gold nanoparticles -- particles only a few millionths of a millimeter wide -- could be attached to the cells using proteins that bind to special receptors on the cells' membranes. With their own photoacoustic signature, the gold particles would then signal the presence of cancer cells.

Citation: "Photoacoustic detection of metastatic melanoma cells in the human circulatory system," by Ryan M. Weight, John A. Viator, Paul S. Dale, Charles W. Caldwell, and Allison E. Lisle, Optics Letters, Vol. 31, Issue 20, pp. 2998-3000.

Source: Optical Society of America

Explore further: A drug long used to treat gout may help adult heart failure patients

Related Stories

A drug long used to treat gout may help adult heart failure patients

February 20, 2018
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine have shown that probenecid, a drug long used to treat gout, may be able to improve heart function in adult patients who experience heart failure.

Some viruses produce insulin-like hormones that can stimulate human cells—and have potential to cause disease

February 19, 2018
Every cell in your body responds to the hormone insulin, and if that process starts to fail, you get diabetes. In an unexpected finding, scientists at Joslin Diabetes Center have identified four viruses that can produce insulin-like ...

'Liquid biopsy' can help predict outcomes in metastatic triple-negative breast cancer

February 16, 2018
A clinically relevant "liquid biopsy" test can be used to profile cancer genomes from blood and predict survival outcomes for patients with metastatic triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), according to new research published ...

Induced pluripotent stem cells could serve as cancer vaccine, researchers say

February 15, 2018
Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are a keystone of regenerative medicine. Outside the body, they can be coaxed to become many different types of cells and tissues that can help repair damage due to trauma or ...

A gene that increases the risk of pancreatic cancer controls inflammation in normal tissue

February 14, 2018
Inflammation is a defensive response of the body to pathogens, but when it persists, it can be harmful, even leading to cancer. Hence, it is crucial to understand the relationship between inflammation and cancer. A group ...

Stem cell vaccine immunizes lab mice against multiple cancers

February 15, 2018
Stanford University researchers report that injecting mice with inactivated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) launched a strong immune response against breast, lung, and skin cancers. The vaccine also prevented relapses ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover novel mechanism linking changes in mitochondria to cancer cell death

February 20, 2018
To stop the spread of cancer, cancer cells must die. Unfortunately, many types of cancer cells seem to use innate mechanisms that block cancer cell death, therefore allowing the cancer to metastasize. While seeking to further ...

Team paves the way to the use of immunotherapy to treat aggressive colon tumors

February 15, 2018
In a short space of time, immunotherapy against cancer cells has become a powerful approach to treat cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer. However, to date, most colon tumours appeared to be unresponsive to this kind ...

Can our genes help predict how women respond to ovarian cancer treatment?

February 15, 2018
Research has identified gene variants that play a significant role in how women with ovarian cancer process chemotherapy.

First comparison of common breast cancer tests finds varied accuracy of predictions

February 15, 2018
Commercially-available prognostic breast cancer tests show significant variation in their abilities to predict disease recurrence, according to a study led by Queen Mary University of London of nearly 800 postmenopausal women.

Catching up to brain cancer: Researchers develop accurate model of how aggressive cancer cells move and spread

February 15, 2018
A brief chat at a Faculty Senate meeting put two University of Delaware researchers onto an idea that could be of great value to cancer researchers.

Possible new principle for cancer therapy

February 14, 2018
A study published in Science Translational Medicine shows that small molecules that specifically inhibit an important selenium-containing enzyme may be useful in combating cancer. When researchers at Karolinska Institutet ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.