SU2C Scientific Research Teams

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Bioengineering and Clinical Applications of Circulating Tumor Cell Chip

Team Leaders

  • Daniel Haber, M.D., Ph.D.
    Daniel Haber, M.D., Ph.D.
    Team Leader
    Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center
    + Full Bio
  • Mehmet Toner, Ph.D.
    Mehmet Toner, Ph.D.
    Co-Leader
    Professor of Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital
    + Full Bio

“...there’s been almost a combination of all the discoveries over so many years in terms of our understanding of what triggers cancer, and now for the first time we can translate that into tools to treat cancer.” - Dr. Daniel Haber, M.D., Ph.D.

About this Team's Research

Cancers arise from cells within an organ, such as the breast or pancreas, but cause death by spreading—or metastasizing—through the bloodstream to the bone, liver, lungs or brain.

Cancer cells that spread from the primary tumor can be found in the patient’s blood. These cancer cells, called circulating tumor cells (CTCs), are extraordinarily rare—there is one for every one billion normal cells. The ability to detect and analyze CTCs could help physicians detect and treat cancer. It could also help scientists learn how cancers spread.

The technologies that are currently available for detecting CTCs have helped scientists learn about these cells. But they are not sensitive or reliable enough for physicians to use in the clinic to make cancer treatment decisions.

This Dream Team, comprised of clinicians, bioengineers and molecular biologists, has developed a novel and radically different approach to detecting and isolating CTCs. They have created a CTC-Chip that is the size of a business card and that has 100 times greater sensitivity than existing technologies. The Chip contains 78,000 microscopic columns, each coated with material capable of attaching to CTCs while allowing normal blood cells to flow through unimpeded. The Dream Team hopes that the Chip might one day be used to detect cancers early, quickly and non-invasively determine if a cancer patient has metastatic disease or to assess whether the patient’s tumor is responding to a specific treatment regimen. Both uses could help physicians make treatment decisions that might lengthen a person’s life expectancy after their cancer diagnosis.

The CTC Dream Team is now optimizing the technology of the CTC-Chip—making it even more sensitive, and ensuring its large-scale reliability and efficiency in clinical settings. The team’s next step is to assess the results of their work on the Chip, demonstrating several primary functions in clinical trials: early detection in cancer screening tests, monitoring tumor response to treatment (while surveying tumor growth and spread of CTCs from primary sites). The CTC-Chip has already proven effective in monitoring specific mutations in lung cancer patients, predicting their responsiveness to targeted drugs. The newest trials will involve a range of cancers, including breast, pancreatic, prostate, and colon.

Click here to see a full list of Dream Team members

Watch a short video in which CTC Team Leaders Haber and Toner talk about the science behind their project: