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Taking the Stealth out of Cancer's Spread

As every cancer patient knows, you can't rest easy once the initial treatment is completed, no matter how successful it has been. It is devilishly hard to root out every last cancer cell, and any left behind could eventually start spreading again, often to a completely new site in the body via the bloodstream. It is this process of metastasis that most often proves fatal, rather than the initial tumor. A powerful new blood test, however, is proving remarkably accurate in measuring minute amounts of cancer cells in the blood, giving doctors a tool for determining very quickly how successful a therapy has been in eradicating the disease.

At the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research in New Orleans on Mar. 27, Dr. Paul Ts'o of Johns Hopkins Medical Center revealed that a new measure called the Circulating Cancer Cell Test (CCCT) is able to detect and isolate as few as 10 to 20 cancer cells in 20 milliliters of blood. The technology, developed by Ts'o and licensed to Cell Works Inc. of Baltimore, uses specially designed antibodies to hone in on the cancer cells and inject them with a fluorescent dye. The blood cells are then removed and the cancer cells studied with a powerful automated microscope.

Ts'o says the test has proved effective in identifying more than 30 different types of cancer, making it a universal test. Once the cancer cells are identified, they can then be analyzed to determine their structural makeup and biological activities -- important information for researchers seeking to develop highly targeted treatments for specific tumors.

Cell Works, which does all the blood analysis at its facility in Baltimore, will make the test generally available to doctors and researchers for prostate, breast, and colon cancer on Apr. 1, at a cost of $400 for the basic test. By Cathy Arnst in New Orleans

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