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Nowhere to hide: Israeli breakthrough detects cancer cells in real-time following surgery

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Instead of waiting days or weeks for lab results following a cancer cell detection test, the wait will take several minutes or hours, which could potentially save lives


In what’s being hailed as a breakthrough, a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University have developed a diagnostic application, which detects cancer cells in the abdominal cavity in real-time.

Instead of waiting days or weeks for lab results following a cancer cell detection test, the wait will take several minutes or hours, which could potentially save lives

According to the research team from the Zimin Institute for Engineering Solutions Advancing Better Lives in Tel Aviv University, their method can detect whether all cancer cells have been removed after tumor removal surgery in the abdominal cavity using an interdisciplinary combination of medicine, engineering, and computer science.

Prof. Noam Shomron and doctoral student Artem Danilevsky, who led the study and developed the method pointed out that “there are undetected cancer cells in tumor removal surgeries, in surgeries of the abdominal cavity for example.

“Those cells can spread to various body parts and the patient must undergo chemotherapy,”  Shomron explained. “The problem is that the critical time frame between the surgery and the cancer cell detection lab tests results can be several weeks long, a delay which drastically increases the risk for a renewed cancer spread.”

The team’s new tool is based on a genetic sequencing device, called MinION,which was produced by Oxford Nanopore Technologies). 

“[It] allows doctors and patients to receive results quickly – ranging from minutes to several hours,” the researchers said. 

To test for the undetected cancer cells, a blood sample and an abdominal cavity fluid sample is taken while the patient undergoes the tumor removal surgery. 

The samples are inserted into the MinION device, which, using a unique algorithm developed by the researchers, can tell whether the sample is more similar to that of a healthy person or a cancer patient.

Addressing how they came up with the technique, Shmoron said that the Institute was searching for an engineering application to improve life. 

“They asked for novel and unique projects,” he continued. “Projects that would not get funding from any other foundation, but will be implementable.” 

Following this, the team combined several research areas “in order to offer a smart and fast diagnostic tool, but there were no ‘buyers,’” adding that they went through various hospital divisions and asked the doctors, “Who wants a DNA test done in an hour?” 

Fortunately, the team said, “we found Dr. Lahat, Director Division of Surgery at Ichilov, who jumped on the opportunity to shorten and improve diagnostic processes – for the benefit of cancer patients.”

A preliminary pilot trial has already started at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), the researchers said.

“We wait outside Dr. Guy Lahat’s operating room, at the Division of Surgery at Ichilov,” Shomron explained. “During the surgery, we wait for Dr. Shelly Loewenstein to collect a small part of the abdominal cavity fluid sample for us. The sample itself is sent simultaneously to the standard lab test. The lab test results arrive after a few weeks.” 

Meanwhile, the team then inserts their sample into the MinION and calculates whether it contains cancer cells or healthy ones. 

“It’s a lot less complicated than sequencing the whole genome,” Shomron added.

If the results are positive for cancer cells, Lahat then continues with a designated abdominal cavity chemotherapy treatment. 

Afterwards, Lahat then performs a saline washing, takes another sample and repeats the cycle again, until we ensure that the patient is free of cancer cells. 

“With a simple but smart ‘application’, based on existing technology, we can outline a lifesaving medical treatment,” Shomron stressed.

The researchers made it clear that the implementation of the novel device is still in its initial trial stages and more time is required until the new device will reach the precision level of older, slower, and larger devices.

Concluding, Shomron estimated that it may take several years but it could be possible to expand the implementation of this novel technology “to detect cancer cells  with a simple blood test during everyday life and not only during a surgery.”

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