North Texas

New Weapon to Detect Cancer Counts Tumor Cells in Blood

People diagnosed with early-stage cancer have a greater chance at beating it, but when that cancer has spread, the odds are much lower.

For example, the five-year survival rate for someone with stage one colon cancer is 92 percent. But the five-year survival rate for someone with stage four is just 12 percent.

There is a team of researchers working to stop these dangerous cancer cells from spreading.

Beth McCaw-McKinney did everything right.

“She ate healthy. She exercised. She always did her breast cancer examinations, pap smears. All that was on time,” said her sister, Cathy McCaw-Engelman.

But then, at age 53, she had her first colonoscopy.

“They found a grapefruit-sized tumor in her colon. It was already in her lymph nodes and basically had spread.” McCaw-Engelman continued.

Doctors gave Beth three months to live. She lived three years.

Professor Annette Khaled and her team study metastatic cancer cells and are looking to help people like Beth. Thanks to a donation from Beth’s family, they now have a new weapon in their fight against cancer: the CellSearch system. 

“CellSearch is a system that uses blood from cancer patients and we’re able to detect circulating tumor cells,” said Dr. Ana Martini, Post-Doctoral Scientist at UCF College of Medicine.

These are cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. The system allows them to separate, analyze and count the number of these cells. It can detect as few as two to three cancer cells in a teaspoon of blood.

With that information they can try to understand cancer better.

“What are the steps and what are the changes that cells undergo, cancer cells undergo, from the tumor to become a circulating tumor cell,” Dr. Annette Khaled, Professor of Medicine and Head of the Cancer Research Division at Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at UCF College of Medicine explained.

And look into how to stop the spread of cancer in its tracks.

“How we can develop therapies to inhibit or prevent these circulating tumor cells,” Khaled said.

The CellSearch system is FDA-approved for clinical purposes and has been around for ten years but only a handful of institutions have one. According to Khaled, doctors can test the number of circulating tumor cells to determine how far a person’s cancer has advanced with the hope to determine if a particular therapy is working.

Contributors to this news report include: Milvionne Chery, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Hayley Hudson, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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