ITF: New approaches in the battle against cancer

In an exclusive series of blogs, imec’s science writers report from the International Technology Forum (ITF) last week in Brussels. This year, ITF’s theme was “It’s a changing world. Let’s make a sustainable change together”.

Testifying to the growing affinity between micro-electronics and healthcare research, ITF has seen a growing number of presentations centered on healthcare.

This year’s first bio-presentation was from Denis Wirtz, co-director of the John Hopkins Institute for NanoBio Technology. He started out with some remarkable observations about the status of today’s cancer research. According to him, in the past 40 years, not much progress has been made, and people diagnosed with cancer still haven’t got a much better prospect than a few decades ago. This despite a massive effort from the healthcare research community.

According to him, most approaches to fight cancer have been focused on developing chemicals to fight the burden of primary tumors. However, a majority of cancer patients who succumb of their disease die as a consequence of metastasis, i.e. secondary tumors that spread around the body. Early detection and treatment of these secondary tumors could have significant impact in a wide range of cancer types

Recent work now suggests that cancer cells that form secondary tumors can be recognized on the cell level (rather than on the molecular level of the genetic makeup). This would mean that we can actually detect these malignant cells through e.g. optical screening of cells. However, for this to have any practical use, you’d need extremely fast and high-throughput tools.

Mr. Wirtz then went on to present the efforts of his institute at Johns Hopkins University where he and his students went on a veritable hunt for cell-level markers that can distinguish the really harmful cells, those that may form secondary tumors, from the primary tumor cells. If his team’s findings prove successful, they could mark a new beginning in the transformation of cancer to what he called “a manageable disease”.

Jan Provoost, science writer imec

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