Jellyfish have inspired the development of a microchip for detecting cancer.

Seeing a jellyfish can send men, women, and children scurrying back to their beach towels in fear of the translucent creature’s stinging tentacles. But these tentacles are designed not just for defense, but also to delicately and selectively collect food. It’s this discriminating character that has inspired the development of a device that could one day help save cancer patients’ lives.

A research team led by Brigham and Women Hospital’s (BWH) Jeffrey Karp, PhD, a bioengineer in the Department of Medicine, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Rohit Karnik, PhD, has developed a microchip that soon may have broad therapeutic and diagnostic uses in the detection and capture of rare cell types, such as cancer cells, fetal cells, viruses, and bacteria. Like a jellyfish’s sticky tentacles selectively grab miniscule food flowing in the water while letting other material flow by, the microchip only grabs the molecules it’s programmed to detect.

The chip uses a micro-fluidic surface composed of numerous long DNA strands that can be customized to detect and capture various cell types. For the initial study, Karp and his team tested the chip by using a DNA sequence with a particular affinity for a cell-surface protein found abundantly in human cancer cells.

One potential application that was studied was the detection and capture of cancer cells that break away from solid tumors and travel through the bloodstream. “What most people don’t realize is that it is the metastasis that kills, not the primary tumor,” Karp explains. “Our device has the potential to catch these cells in the act with its ‘tentacles’ before they may seed a new tumor in a distant organ.”

The research team also demonstrated that the device could be used to capture and then release cancerous cells for lab examination. “One of the greatest challenges in the treatment of cancer patients is to know which drug to prescribe,” says Karp. “By isolating circulating tumor cells before and after the first round of chemotherapy is given, we can determine the biology behind why certain cells are resistant to chemotherapy. We can also use the isolated cells to screen drugs for personalized treatments that could boost effectiveness and hopefully prevent cancer relapse.”

The study: Bioinspired multivalent DNA network for capture and release of cells

Karp’s lab: The Laboratory for Advanced Biomaterials and Stem-Cell Based Therapeutics

Other BWH targeted cancer therapy research: “A Tiny Cancer Medicine with Mega Potential”

– Chris P.

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