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New Device May Diagnose Mesothelioma and Other Cancers Early


Although the word “cancer” is not something that any patient wants to hear in a doctor’s office, many of these diseases are treatable. As time passes, chemotherapy and radiation therapy grow more precise in order to target only the malignant tissue while preserving the healthy cells. Doctors are refining their surgical techniques, as well.

One of the keys to determining which treatments may work best is an early diagnosis. However, when it comes to malignant mesothelioma, such an approach has proven exceedingly difficult.

At Kazan Law, we keep track of scientists’ efforts to diagnose mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases early. Recently, a binational team from Japan and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) developed a device that can capture tumor cells circulating in the blood. This technology may prove to be valuable in not only diagnosing malignant conditions, but also determining whether tumor cells threaten to colonize other areas of the body.

Early detection is difficult
People usually have no indication that they may have malignant pleural mesothelioma until they develop symptoms. Experts from the American Cancer Society list these as chest pain, shortness of breath, cough, fever, fatigue or weight loss. Peritoneal mesothelioma is characterized by pain or swelling in the abdomen.

Once patients develop symptoms, doctors may use several tools to determine what is wrong. These include a recording of a patient’s history of asbestos exposure, radiological scans of physical changes and possible analysis of any abnormal fluid buildup. One of the more common tests is a biopsy, which collects a cell sample from the body for a closer examination under a microscope.

However, by the time patients develop symptoms, their conditions are likely in their advanced stages. For this reason, scientists are trying to find a way to screen for this disease early in symptom-free individuals. Efforts have included recommendations for x-rays and CT scans of the chest for people with a history of asbestos exposure, or blood tests to measure levels of substances such as osteopontin and soluble mesothelin-related peptides. However, the value of these approaches for early screening remains unclear.

New technology acts like Velcro
In order to improve the chances of early diagnosis of cancer, scientists from UCLA and the Japanese company RIKEN developed a device that allows blood to pass through it like a filter. Within the system is a molecule that attaches itself to tumor cells in a Velcro like fashion. In the laboratory, scientists can cool the molecules down, causing the tumor cells to detach for easy collection for examination.

“Until now, most devices have demonstrated the ability to capture circulating tumor cells with high efficiency. However, it is equally important to release these captured cells, to preserve and study them in order to obtain insightful information about them. This is the big difference with our device,” said Hsiao-hua Yu, who helped lead the development of the technology.

All scientific advances need volunteers
It may take a while before we start seeing devices such as the one RIKEN developed reach the clinic. Often, additional studies are needed to verify that they work. This cannot be done without the help of volunteer subjects.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has a handy guide for people who are interested in volunteering for clinical trials, which evaluate therapies, screening tools, diagnostic modalities, preventive medicine and other facets of cancer care. The guide lists both the potential benefits and drawback. When it comes to the former, the NCI states that subjects may help promote better treatments for future patients by teaching scientists more about cancer.

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