WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cancer cells, like ripe fruit, are much softer than healthy cells, scientists said on Sunday in a finding that could help doctors diagnose tumors and figure out which might be the deadliest.
The researchers used a nanotechnology device called an Atomic Force Microscope that allowed them to give a little poke to healthy cells and cancerous cells that had spread from the original site of tumors.
Cancer cells taken from people with pancreatic, breast and lung tumors were more than 70 percent softer than benign cells, the scientists wrote in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
“The bottom line is now we can feel the cancer cells with this technology, in addition to looking at them and analyzing them in a molecular way,” Jianyu Rao of the Jonsson Cancer Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of the researchers, said in a telephone interview.
“We think it may be diagnostically helpful.”
The different types of cancer cells examined in the study exhibited similar levels of softness, allowing the healthy and diseased ones to be clearly identified.
The technique may represent a new method for detecting cancer, particularly in cells from body cavity fluids for which diagnosis with current techniques can be difficult, the researchers said.
Conventional diagnostic methods miss about 30 percent of cases in which cancer cells are present in this fluid, the researchers said.
The microscope used in the study has a small tip on a spring to push against a cell’s surface and determine its level of softness or firmness.
“You look at two tomatoes in the supermarket and both are red. One is rotten, but it looks normal,” UCLA chemistry professor James Gimzewski, another of the researchers, said in a statement.
“If you pick up the tomatoes and feel them, it’s easy to figure out which one is rotten. We’re doing the same thing. We’re poking and quantitatively measuring the softness of the cells.”
When cancer is spreading from its original site, for example the pancreas, into other parts of the body in a process called metastasis, tumor cells can cause fluid to build up in cavities such as the chest and abdomen.
If this fluid could be swiftly and accurately tested for the presence of cancer cells, doctors could make better decisions about how aggressively a patient should be treated or if any treatment is appropriate at all, the researchers said.
Rao said he hoped measuring the softness of cells might in the future help determine which tumors are more likely to be deadly. Rao said that, particularly in diseases like prostate cancer, it can be difficult to distinguish a tumor that might kill a patient from one that might pose little threat.
“More broadly, what we really had in mind is basically hoping some day that when we look at the primary tumors that we can predict which one is more aggressive,” Rao said.
Editing by Maggie Fox and John O'Callaghan