Lasers Could Provide Improved Cancer Detection

Biomedical engineers at Duke University have devised an improved method for detecting the signs of cancer in a single cell. The new method relies on two lasers and a camera, according to a report published on this week.

Cell stiffness is the key

Cell stiffness is a known indicator of cancerous tissue, but existing detection methods relying on this indicator look at clusters of cells, not individual cells.

Looking at individual cells, the work of Adam Wax, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke, previously showed that a cell's internal structures shift as fluids flow around its exterior. To illustrate this point, the report shares this quote: "Think of a cell as a large Jell-O mold with a lot of fruit suspended in it. If you blow on it really hard with compressed air, everything is going to move in the direction of the air a little bit."

Quantifying stiffness

Wax's work showed it was possible to calculate stiffness by measuring that shift. Advancing the finding further, new work shows that the amount of disorder found within a cell's internal structures directly correlates to its stiffness.

To measure cellular disorder, researchers shine a laser through a cell and compare it to a second, unobstructed beam. The differences in the amount of time it takes for the two lasers to travel through the sample are then analyzed to produce a picture, revealing just how disordered the cell's internal structures are.

For more on this finding, see the report at, which includes useful images, and also see the engineers' published findings in Biophysical Journal.