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NEWS
Research Shows Promise for Detecting Metastatic Breast Cancer Cells
February 14, 2011

Research by engineers and cancer biologists at Virginia Tech indicate that using specific silicon microdevices might provide a new way to screen breast cancer cells’ ability to metastasize.


Masoud Agah

The Virginia Tech researchers are: Masoud Agah, director of Virginia Tech’s Microelectromechanical Systems Laboratory in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Jeannine Strobl, a research professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Mehdi Nikkhah of mechanical engineering; and Raffaella DeVita of engineering science and mechanics and the director of the soft biological systems laboratory. Nikkhah was Virginia Tech’s Outstanding Doctoral Student in the College of Engineering for 2009.

Their work appeared in two journal articles they authored in 2010 issues of Biomaterials, titled “Actions of the anti-cancer drug suberoylanilide hydroaxamic acid (SAHA) on human breast cancer cytoarchitecture in silicon microstructures,” and “The cytoskeletal organization of breast carcinoma and fibroblast cells inside three dimensional isotropic microstructures.”

What distinguishes the work of Prof. Agah, a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award recipient, and his colleagues, is they developed a specific three-dimensional silicon microstructure for their work. Due to its curved isotropic surfaces, they were able to characterize and compare the growth and adhesion behavior of normal fibroblast and metastatic human breast cancer cells, they reported in the journal.

Using their uniquely designed three-dimensional silicon microstructure, they were able to incorporate three key cellular components found in any breast tumor microenvironment. Additionally, they were able to determine the detailed interaction of the cells within this environment, including the normal breast cells, the metastatic breast cancer cells, and the fibroblast cells.

Their understanding of the behavior of the cells within the microstructures is what leads them to believe their research could “provide important diagnostic and prognostic markers unique to the tumor, which could ultimately be used to develop new tools for the detection and treatment of cancer.”

Following their initial findings, Strobl, Nikkhah, and Agah identified a unique application of the experimental anti-cancer drug SAHA in their studies with the silicon microstructure. SAHA, also known as Vorinostat, is the first drug of its type to receive Food and Drug Administration approval for clinical use in cancer treatment.

The Virginia Tech work in this area “is the first to address the use of microdevices to study this emerging class of anti-cancer agents,” Prof. Agah said.


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