Utah Valley University physicists are using a levitation trick to gauge the density of individual cells, as a step toward better cancer and Alzheimer's diagnoses.
The levitation, like any good trick, looks easy but is actually very complicated: A cell culture is removed from the subject (for example, a suspicious mass that could be a tumor) and then placed into a fluid that mimics the human blood stream. Then the user sends a low-frequency sound wave through the fluid. This first wave locks the cells in place within the fluid, keeping them from floating around willy-nilly. Then a second wave is released, this one high-frequency, which acts like an ultrasound, reacting to the cells as it reaches and passes them, and sending back information about the cells' density.
"An acoustic wave ... travels as a wave of high and low pressure. By trapping a sound wave between a transducer—such as a speaker—and a reflective surface, we can create a 'standing wave' in the space between," explained Utah Valley University physicist and researcher Brian Patchett, who unveiled the new, creative technology at the Acoustical Society of America's Fall 2015 meeting last week.
It all may sound rather sci-fi, but the standing waves reveal information previously unachievable. Because different types of cells have different densities, a minor difference in thickness can mean the difference between a tumor and a benign cell, or between one type of cancer and another. In the past, these cells would be removed and placed in a Petri dish, so that diagnosticians could watch them grow, but then the cells could behave in unpredictable ways as they adapted to their new environment. With the new levitation machine, the cells are studied exactly as they were in the blood stream.
"Our method identifies aggressive types of breast cancer, for example, while in the operating room," Patchett noted in a press release. "Faster than current pathology methods, it will enable doctors to ensure speedier assessments and more effective treatment plans for patients—personalized to their specific needs, which, in turn, will end up being more cost effective in the long term."
Breast cancer is particularly interesting for these researchers because it comes in varying types, each of which has its own density fingerprint. The Huntsman Cancer Institute, an affiliated health care group, is collaborating with the group to fine-tune the technology.
"Our goal is to provide potentially life-saving, personalized medical treatments," said Patchett.
For the 2.8 million American women with a history of breast cancer, that can't come soon enough.
Following Patchett's presentation of the new technology, the findings were published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.