Cancer cell surrounded by therapeutic antibodies and cytokines among normal cells
Credit: Marcin Klapczynski/Getty Images

A new way to monitor cells in real time, without killing them, has been developed by a research team at University of Leeds. Their tool has two nanoscopic needles that can simultaneously inject and extract a sample from the same cell. This double-barrel nanopipette, allows researchers to see how individual living cancer cells react to treatment and change over time. 

This team tested resistance to chemotherapy and radiotherapy of glioblastoma (GBM) cells- the deadliest form of brain cancer.

Current methods of single cell analysis usually destroy the cells, but this device can take a “biopsy” of a living cell repeatedly without killing it, enabling scientists to observe the cells’ reaction over time, such as during treatment.  

This “nanobiopsy” technique was invented by co-author Paolo Actis at Leeds and colleagues in 2014. Since then, “We introduced several improvements that allowed us to sample more cells with higher precision. This increased the success rate of the “nanosurgery” to 90%. Also we introduced new features allowing for cellular injection and sampling,” he told Inside Precision Medicine.

This technique is “applicable to any cancer, and even to non-cancerous cells so it would also allow us to see how the cells surrounding the cancer, in the supposedly ‘normal’ tissue are reacting to the malignant cells,” said co-author Lucy Stead.

Added Stead, “This project constitutes a huge technological leap, and now we want to start applying it to more cancer cells in higher numbers that will allow us to start gaining biological insights. This requires investment into the nanobiopsy itself (to move it from a prototype to a more user-friendly platform) as well as funding to let us apply it in ways that will give us that much-needed, deeper understanding.”

The tool has two nanoscopic needles, meaning it can simultaneously inject and extract a sample from the same cell, expanding its potential uses. The platform’s semi-automation has sped up the process dramatically, enabling scientists to extract data from many more individual cells, with far greater accuracy and efficiency than previously possible, the study shows. 

Currently, techniques for studying single cells usually destroy them, meaning a cell can be studied either before or after treatment.  

This device can take a “biopsy” of a living cell repeatedly during exposure to cancer treatment, sampling tiny extracts of its contents without killing it, enabling scientists to observe its reaction over time. 

The team, featuring biologists and engineers, tested cancer cells’ resistance to chemotherapy and radiotherapy using glioblastoma (GBM) – the deadliest form of brain tumor – as a test case, because of its ability to adapt to treatment and survive. 

Stead leads the Glioma Genomics research group at the Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St James’s Hospital, which is focused on trying to cure GBM brain tumors. She noted that, “This technology could be transformative for this particular cancer, helping us finally identify effective treatments for this awful, incurable disease.” 

Simon Newman, Chief Scientific Officer at The Brain Tumour Charity, said, “We know glioblastoma cells respond differently to treatment, often developing treatment resistance which leads to recurrence. The development of this novel technology, which can extract samples from tumour cells grown in the lab before and after treatment, will give a unique insight into how drug resistance may develop and lead to tumors growing back.”

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