21 May 2015
Learning the size and shape of a tumour could help better determine how to best treat them, a new study has found.
Engineers from the University of Southern California (USC) have developed a backpack-sized instrument that could help achieve this goal. The device can gently squeeze a wide range of materials, accurately quantifying the Young's modulus or its "squishiness".
Published by Applied Physics Letters, the study conducted preliminary testing, which found that more aggressive tumours are stiffer generally. However, this complex relationship needs more research, according to the engineers.
"The device leaves the sample completely undamaged, which allows researchers to still perform other tests on it," said Mark Harrison, USC Viterbi School of Engineering graduate student researcher and lead author of the study.
Before the new device, determining the "squishiness" of tumours was time-consuming and some were highly sensitive to environmental vibration. The team solved this by using fibre optics in the new device.
The instrument squishes a tumour sample on top of the optical fibre, changing the laser inside in a way that can tell researchers the Young's modulus.
"Instruments able to measure a material's Young's modulus already existed, but they're large and require calibration each time they're moved," said Andrea Armani, USC Viterbi associate professor and corresponding author of the study. "Our device could be carried from hospital room to hospital room and doesn't need an engineer to operate it."
The device's development was inspired by previous research, which found that squishiness could be linked to a tumour's aggressiveness, but there was not an easy-to-use device to test this.
Dr David Agus, who conducted the original research, said this new development was "so exciting".
He said it gives a new dimension of a tumour to measure, which will help personalise treatment and improve a cancer patient's care.
Dr Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and USC Viterbi, added that there is also increased interest on a more fundamental level, as well as in the clinical setting.
It is hoped the device would better help understanding of how different types of tumours are related to their mechanical properties. This is part of a growing area of interest in research, which studies the physics of cancer.
Previous research has looked into the importance of the chemical makeup of tumours, meaning the majority of current tests to probe the nature of a cancerous tumour focus on its chemical makeup.
"Physical oncology represents a completely fresh approach to tackling the problem of cancer. It has the potential to provide huge insights as scientists throughout the world try to understand, treat and ultimately prevent cancer in humans," said Peter Kuhn, professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who helped launch a new peer-reviewed journal on physical oncology last month.
Dr Armani said that, given the safety, stability, and accuracy of the instrument, it could play a pivotal role in both diagnostic and research efforts, providing a rapid method for screening samples.
Posted by Edward Bartel
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