Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that affects plasma cells, which are important for immunity. The cancerous plasma cells grow out of control, damaging the bones, immune system, and much more. The disease is typically diagnosed through invasive bone marrow biopsies in which a needle is inserted into the bone to retrieve a sample of bone marrow. The cells in the sample are then examined to find cancerous cells. The process of a bone biopsy is painful and carries the potential of infection. However, engineers at MIT have developed a microfluidic device that is able to capture and count plasma cells from small samples of blood in order to improve detection of myeloma while avoiding a painful bone biopsy.
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The study published in Scientific Reports builds on a technique developed at Harvard University where researchers etched grooves into a device. This groove design allows fluid flowing through the device to swirl and increase contact with the floor of the device. The MIT researchers reproduced the device and coated the device floor with cell-attracting molecules in order to capture circulating plasma cells. The cells are then counted and examined.
The research team took blood samples from healthy donors and ill patients in order to validate their device. To do this, they noted that an important distinguishing factor between healthy patients and myeloma patients is the ratio of two types of antibodies released by the plasma cells. Knowing the antibody levels helps clinicians determine the progression of the disease. Comparing their results to blood tests for those antibodies, the research group was able to validate their device’s accuracy.
This device would help physicians and patients better manage the multiple myeloma. While there are many therapies that achieve relatively high success in improving patient outcomes, there is no cure. Moreover, sustaining the remission stage, when a patient’s health is recovering, is a challenge. As the patient’s health improves, the detected levels of antibodies measured from traditional blood tests are comparable to levels of antibodies in healthy patients, making it hard for clinicians to distinguish subtleties in the myeloma patient’s health using this measurement. However, the microfluidic device is able to detect high levels of plasma cells above the baseline, giving clinicians slightly more information than other blood tests currently being used.
The main contribution of this research is the ability to monitor a patient’s condition without having to undergo invasive and complicated biopsies. The research team hopes to perform genetic tests on captured cells in order to find ways to further characterize the disease.
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