Dust Settling Around Cancer Cell Dust

Brain tumor diagnosis and monitoring possible with blood test for microvesicles

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) The diagnosis and monitoring of brain cancer is a really delicate and complex business. New technology may soon make this task as easy as taking a blood sample.

A hand-held version of existing imaging technology can successfully detect brain cancer in blood samples, according to a recently published study.

The authors wrote that the new technology could be used in doctors’ offices to provide instant answers. In addition to glioblastoma multiforme, they believe this system might be used for other cancers and possibly bacterial infections.

"Don't hesitate to ask for a second opinion."

Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology investigators have found that nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging can pick up tiny cell particles called microvesicles in a drop of blood. These microvesicles are shed by cancer cells in much larger quantities than normal cells sluff off.

"About 30 or 40 years ago, people noticed something in the bloodstream that they initially thought was some kind of debris or 'cell dust',"said Hakho Lee, PhD, of the CSB, and co-senior author of the study with Ralph Weissleder, MD, PhD, director of the CSB.

"But it has recently become apparent that these vesicles shed by cells actually harbor the same biomarkers as their parent cells," Dr. Lee said.

What this means is that the microvesicles indicate the presence of disease – just like the actual cancer cells do.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is the most common and aggressive type of brain cancer, a disease that’s diagnosed in nearly 23,000 people in US every year.

Diagnosing this cancer and then monitoring its progress currently requires biopsies (tissue samples taken and tested) and imaging tests. So long-term monitoring is not only difficult, but invasive and impractical, according to the researchers.

That’s why the CBS team sought to develop a blood test to track the disease.

Problem is, because microvesicles are so tiny, not many technologies can detect them. Dr. Lee and his team have developed and fine-tuned a miniature, hand-held NMR device. The system was shown to accurately detect microvesicles in blood samples from both animals with human GBM tumors and then GBM patients.

“The ability to monitor the presence of GBM by detection of microvesicles shed by the tumor with a blood test would be an important tool for treatment of this disease,” Keith L. Black, MD, chair and professor of Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Neurosurgery, told dailyRx News.

“The impact of this test would be the greatest in monitoring the efficacy of treatment and for early detection of recurrence,” said Dr. Black who is director of the Cochran Brain Tumor Center, director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute and the Ruth and Lawrence Harvey Chair in Neuroscience.

“Importantly, in patients with low grade gliomas, where the likelihood of progression to GBM is 70 percent, such a test would be a clear advance,” said Dr. Black, who was not involved in this research.

This study was published November 11 in Nature Medicine. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. None of the authors reported conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 11, 2012
Last Updated:
May 24, 2013