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Breakthrough diagnostic process detects cancer's ability to metastasize

University Of Texas At Austin : 27 September, 2001  (Technical Article)
Motivated by the cancer deaths of several friends and family members, a University of Texas at Austin scientist has developed technology to help doctors detect cancer and determine whether cancer cells are capable of spreading to other parts of the body.
The technology, known as the Optical Cell Stretcher, was invented by university biophysicist Josef Käs and is being developed by Evacyte Corp., an Austin biotechnology firm created to commercialize the pioneering diagnostic process.

Renee Mallett, The University of Texas at Austin’s associate director for technology licensing and intellectual property, said in addition to owning equity in Evacyte, the university and its College of Natural Sciences will receive royalties from the sale of Optical Cell Stretcher technology.

Käs, an associate professor of physics and researcher in the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, became interested in cancer diagnosis and treatment when a series of friends and family members unsuccessfully battled the disease over the course of several years.

'Being a physicist and something of a geek, I did what I always do when confronted by a problem,' said Käs. 'I read.'

Käs learned that while there have been remarkable advances in cancer therapy, the death rate has not changed significantly because many cancers are detected when they are too advanced to respond to treatment. Early detection has been elusive because on the molecular level, cancer actually is more than 100 diseases. Developing techniques to detect all these diseases is overwhelmingly complex and costly.

Käs hit on an intriguingly simple idea based on a characteristic shared by all cancer cells. As cancer develops and progresses, cells become increasingly malleable because of the breakdown of their internal polymer support network, called the cytoskeleton. Käs compares the cytoskeleton to bits of 'half-cooked spaghetti' that give cells their shape and stability.

'It's documented that cancer cells have much less 'half-cooked spaghetti' than normal cells, and this decrease in cytoskeletal strength is common to all cancer cells,' he said. With less 'half-cooked spaghetti,' cells become more elastic and are able to move into the bloodstream and invade other parts of the body. Cancer that spreads accounts for 90 percent of cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

About one-third of cancer patients have cancer that spreads before it was diagnosed, while another one-third have cancer that is in the process of spreading but can't yet be detected. The remaining patients have localized tumors but often are treated as though their cancer has spread. Addressing the under-treatment and over-treatment of cancer due to a lack of diagnostics capability is one of the commercial opportunities for the technology.

Käs and university graduate student Jochen Guck invented and patented the Optical Cell Stretcher to test the elasticity of cells. The test uses small tissue samples obtained through fine needle aspiration or cytobrush, procedures that are much less invasive than a typical biopsy.

Lasers are used to optically stretch one cell at a time. The amount of stretching tells doctors whether a cell is normal or cancerous and reveals whether cancerous cells are metastatically competent, that is, whether the cells are elastic enough to spread to other parts of the body.

Through earlier detection and a better understanding of whether a patient's cancer may spread, doctors can provide more appropriate treatments. For example, cancer that has metastasized, or is capable of spreading, requires aggressive therapy. However, patients with localized cancer may be spared the lengthy, painful and expensive treatments they often undergo as a precaution.

'We anticipate that this technology can reduce the overall cost of treatment and mortality of metastatic cancer that is now diagnosed as local cancer,' said Evacyte co-founder Christian Walker. 'In addition, it could potentially lessen medical liability costs by providing more accurate diagnoses.'

Evacyte is focusing its initial efforts on metastatically competent tumor cells within breast and melanoma tumors, both of which are highly treatable in their early stages.

Evacyte was founded in 2000 by two entrepreneurial scientists. Walker is a molecular biologist who, as a graduate student, worked with Käs in the early development of Optical Cell Stretcher technology. Co-founder Hal Erickson, a biophysical chemist and Evacyte’s chief technologist, is a guest lecturer in conservation science and biomaterials chemistry at the university.
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