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New technology to diagnose hard-to-find cancers

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Who: Dr Shana Kelley, researcher, Toronto
What: Dr Kelley and her team are developing a new device to detect cancer earlier using patient blood samples.
Why: Detecting hard-to-diagnose cancers early through a blood test may help to improve treatment and, ultimately, survival.


Dr Shana Kelley, a professor and researcher at the University of Toronto, is tackling one of the toughest questions in cancer research – how to detect cancers that have no symptoms.


Some cancers, including breast or colon cancer, can be detected early. But other cancers deep within the body, such as brain or ovarian cancer, are more difficult to diagnose. Early detection is a top priority since it often increases the chances that a cancer will be successfully treated.


Dr Kelley envisions a future where doctors can use a simple blood test to screen for a number of cancers during a routine physical exam.


“That’s certainly the holy grail,” she says. “Ideally, we want to be able to find more cancers before they have symptoms.”


Researchers have discovered that cancer cells shed tiny particles that enter the blood and circulate around the body. Dr Kelley’s team of chemists and engineers, in collaboration with physicians, has leveraged this finding by developing a device that can detect these particles in a small blood sample.


The device uses a microchip, similar to a computer chip, that produces an electrical signal when these tiny cancer particles are present in the blood. The team has produced a working model of the device and early results show it is sensitive enough to detect these particles in blood samples. The team will next test the device in larger clinical studies with more blood samples from patients.


The long-term goal is to create a compact, easy-to-use tool that doctors can use in their clinic to easily test for cancer.


Dr Kelley says that her promising research would not have been possible without the Canadian Cancer Society’s support of unconventional cancer research.


“When we applied for funding, we didn’t have a lot of results to back up our work. But because of our Society Innovation Grant, we were able to create a new device and prove that it worked,” she says. “The support of the Society was essential.”


Her success in developing tools to improve cancer diagnosis is rooted in the decision to bring together researchers and doctors with different backgrounds.


“Ultimately, we want to develop tools that are useful to clinicians,” she says. “We are using our expertise in chemistry and engineering to make devices that meet the needs of the medical community and are designed to make an impact for patients.”

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