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Rather than subject patients to surgical biopsies, researchers are hoping to develop liquid biopsies that detect cancer from within blood samples, Stat News' Megan Scudellari writes.

While blood-based analyses are now used to gauge what course of action to take to treat someone already diagnosed with cancer, she says being able to make that diagnosis based on a blood sample is still out of reach. However, Technology Review's Antonio Regalado says Dennis Lo's lab has had success in that arena, and has been able to, for instance, uncover nasopharyngeal carcinoma during its early stages.

Still, Scudellari writes that there are some 38 companies in the US that are scouring blood for bits of DNA that's sloughed off by dying cancer cells, but one duo is instead sifting out the healthy parts of blood to examine what's left for tumor cells. Mehmet Toner and Daniel Haber at Massachusetts General Hospital are taking, Scudellari says, what some of their competitors would call an "old-school" approach.

Toner and Haber have developed a device they've dubbed an iChip that's made of lightweight plastic with microfluidic grooves etched into it. Blood applied to the chip is filtered, eventually leaving the researchers with tumor cells. "The information content from whole cells and the ability to look at how each cancer cell is different from the other is very powerful," Haber adds.

Their work, Scudellari notes, has been funded by Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Diagnostics. "The engineering is almost ready," Jorge Villacian, chief medical officer at Janssen Diagnostics, says.

And according to Haber, MGH and Janssen are in talks to start a biotech company to commercialize the approach.