A UCSB research team published their findings outlining technology they developed that discriminates between cancerous and non-cancerous cells in bodily fluids in the latest issue of renowned research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Alessia Pallaoro — a postdoctoral researcher in the department of chemistry and biochemistry — led the study, using laser spectroscopy and cutting-edge silver nanoparticles as biotags to detect prostate cancer cells. Although breast and prostate cancer have the most robust features and are the easiest to observe, the technology is extendable to other cells and types of cancer.

According to Pallaoro, the team is in the developing stages of engineering an apparatus that will aid in identifying when this type of cancer will spread to other parts of the body.

“Although the technique is not ready yet to be used for diagnostic purposes, we are working to translate the technology to a diagnostic microdevice for studying cancer cells in the blood,” Pallaoro said. “These are called circulating tumor cells.”

These cells, known as CTCs, detach from the primary tumor and slip into the bloodstream where they produce more CTCs in other organs, Pallaoro said. A blood sample is then taken to mix the cells with nanoparticles and pass them through a laser that uses the biotags to distinguish cancerous cells from non-cancerous ones.

According to Gary Braun — co-author of the experiment and a postdoctoral researcher in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Dept. — the biotags emit rich colors when detecting cells and thus seem more effective than fluorescence technology. Additionally, the laser spectroscopy technology and silver nanoparticles found on human cells allowed the researchers to see if abnormal division of the cell will occur through metastasis.

Martin Moskovits, senior author of the paper and UCSB’s Dean of Sciences from 2000 to 2007, said the team took a basic concept of finding cancerous cells and combined it with revolutionary science.

“Think of yourself as feeling around in the dark for a key or a quarter in your pocket; you look for some surface feature. We look for something on the surface of the cell that makes it a cancerous cell as opposed to a non-cancerous cell,” Moskovits said. “The features on the surface of the cell that might help you recognize it are not much different — there are just more of them. You need to be able to make a diagnosis based on the quantitative amount of these things on the surface.”

Braun said developing a set of particles that would detect cells in such a way provided a difficult challenge.

“It was a sometimes strenuous project — designing and testing a set of particles that operate in the protein and amino acid rich soup the cells call home,” Braun said in a press release. “We thought it would be easier than it was.”