Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Rough Plastics Catch Cancer

By Stephen Luntz

Cancer cells could be captured on roughened plastics, improving the prospects of early diagnosis following recent work at the Ian Wark Institute at the University of South Australia.

A/Prof Benjamin Thierry applied high-powered oxygen plasma to commercially available polystyrene surfaces to create nano-sized dents of the right size to make them sticky to cancer cells.

Thierry then added a known number of tumour cells to a blood sample and ran it over the surface. More than 95% of the tumour cells stuck, allowing them to be identified under a microscope. Such high efficiency suggests that the technique could be used to diagnose cancer even when very few cells are present, maximising the chance of saving a patient.

“The plastics very efficiently isolate cells in the blood,” says Thierry. The reasons the cells stick are still somewhat mysterious, and Thierry says it is not known for certain whether different topographies will work better for particular forms of cancer. “At a first approximation I doubt there will be specificity for particular forms of roughness,” he says.

The work was presented at the International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN 2014). Thierry says that other teams have made tumour cells stick but this had been done with techniques that are unsuitable for clinical settings.

As efficient as the mechanism is, Thierry doubts it could be used to clear cancer from the blood. “Cancer cells usually only last for a few hours in the bloodstream, and are replaced by new cells shed from the primary tumour,” he says. “So even if you could somehow capture them all, within 24 hours you’d be back where you started.

“The only situation where it might work would be immediately after surgery on the primary tumour, as there is a lot of shedding when the tumour is removed.” Even then the logistical challenges would be formidable.