Capturing Cancer Like a Jellyfish

Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital December 11, 2012

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.

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Cancer Treatment’s Impact on the Heart

Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital November 27, 2012

Cancer treatments can cause serious short- and long-term effects on the heart.

More than 12 million Americans today are cancer survivors or are actively undergoing cancer treatment. Cancer therapies are saving and extending lives. With earlier detection and advances in treatment, survival rates for cancer continue to climb. But, cancer therapies also can carry side effects.

“Some of the most effective medical and radiation cancer treatments can cause serious short- and long-term effects on the heart,” says Dr. Anju Nohria, Co-Director of the Cardio-Oncology Program, a joint collaboration between Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “The good news is that we can manage these side effects.”

Targeted therapies designed to inhibit a cancer’s ability to grow, for example, can bring on sudden spikes in blood pressure and related kidney issues, heart arrhythmias, or a rapid decline in heart function, causing interruptions in critical cancer treatments. Other cancer therapies can accelerate atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the arteries, and lead to the development of heart disease at a much younger age, particularly for people treated for cancer in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.

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Grapefruit Juice – Medication Friend or Foe?

Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital October 3, 2012

A substance in grapefruit juice improves the absorption of sirolimus, an experimental cancer drug.

Many patients have been warned not to drink grapefruit juice when taking certain medications.  That’s because enzymes in grapefruit juice can cause too much of some drugs to be released into your body, leading to serious health problems, including the potential for overdose.

But researchers at the University of Chicago have turned that negative into a positive. They found that a substance in grapefruit juice called furanocoumarin improved absorption of an experimental drug in cancer patients, allowing for lower dosages and reduced side effects.

“It’s a very interesting way of using a known food-drug interaction as a means of getting better drug levels into cancer patients,”  said Dr. Jerry Avorn, chief of the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in an interview with

Researchers were challenged to find a solution to the problem of poor absorption for a drug called sirolimus. Only small amounts of sirolimus are absorbed into the bloodstream, too low to have a medical benefit for cancer patients.  However, higher dosages can increase patient side effects, such as nausea and diarrhea.  Then, Dr. Ezra Cohen, who led the study’s research team, recalled that grapefruit juice can increase the blood levels of some drugs.

The Florida Department of Citrus supplied the research team with grapefruit juice rich in furanocoumarin. (Supermarket grapefruit juice did not contain enough of this substance to have an effect.)  This potent juice increased sirolimus levels by 350 percent, allowing dosages to be reduced from 90 milligrams to 25-35 milligrams per week.

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