Detecting single cancer cells with light: A podcast

Photo by Burak Kebapci

When cancer is spotted early, it’s much easier to thwart. So researchers, including Stanford’s Jennifer Dionne, PhD, are working to detect cancer more effectively. Dionne, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, is developing a nanomaterial-based probe that may be able to detect a single cancer cell.

She described her work in a recent episode of the Future of Everything radio show, hosted by Russ Altman, MD, PhD, a Stanford professor of bioengineering, of genetics, of medicine and of biomedical data science.

“What our lab is trying to do is create light-emitting nanoparticles that change their color when there is an applied force on the nanoparticles. So that way we can make mechanical forces visually perceptible,” she explained to Altman. These nanoparticle already change color in response to the tiny forces generated by cells and groups of cells, she said, and cancer cells are known to exert more force on their environment than healthy cells.

Dionne explained: “Generally a cancer cell wants to take up a lot of nutrients and it’s basically growing and dividing more quickly than a healthy cell. You can imagine given the speed of replication that it’s going to exert a higher force on its environment than a healthy cell. So our nanoparticles offer the ability to detect even a single cancer cell based on the forces that that cancer cell is exerting on its environment.”

That could help pathologists spot abnormal cells in a biopsy sample, she said. “This could be a really cool in vitro probe of whether or not in a biopsy [sample] you have even one cancer cell, which you can tell just by looking at the color the nanoparticles are emitting,” she told Altman.

Although their primary focus was on the development of nanomaterials with energy and biomedical applications, the conversation did take a few interesting twists. I particularly enjoyed their discussion on the design challenges behind making a Harry Potter invisibility cloak. Hint: Like water waves flowing around a rock, you need to create a cloak that allows light waves to flow smoothly around the hidden object so they emerge on the other side as if they hadn’t passed through the object — it’s difficult, but they’re working on it.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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