One of cancer's many effects on the body is the stiffening of cells, a process that leads tumors to having a dense, thick composition. While detecting this phenomenon early could help lead to better treatment options for cancer victims, thus far, doing so on a cell-by-cell basis hasn't been possible. By using two lasers and a camera, researchers at Duke University have now changed that.

The researchers determined that when a cell stiffens, its internal contents become more regularly organized. Therefore, detecting organization in a cell would lead to an understanding of its stiffness, which would help uncover the formation of cancerous tissue. While one of the study's authors, biomechanical engineering professor Adam Wax, says more research is needed to link intracellular organization to stiffness, he does have a theory.

"I believe that a more organized cell shows greater stiffness because it allows for more direct transfer of mechanical force," he told New Atlas. "For example if you pushed something with a single tree limb it would do a better job if moving it then if you pushed with a limb with many branches."

To measure the amount of order or disorder inside individual cells, Wax and Will Eldridge, a PhD student in Wax's lab and first author of a new paper, developed a way to shoot two lasers and record the results. One laser shines through the cell being studied, while the other travels unimpeded. By comparing the time it takes for each laser to travel, a picture is produced to indicate the degree of organization in the cell.

To confirm that the system was working correctly, the team used another method invented by Wax in which measuring the way fluid flows around a cell indicates its level of rigidity. While that method took less than an hour to produce results, the new laser-based method can return results in seconds.

"The speed of this technique is only limited by the size of your camera's field of view," said Eldridge. "You could potentially measure hundreds of individual cells in a matter of seconds."

The researchers say both methods are improvements over currently existing techniques and those under development, which can only image groups of cells, not individual ones. "Traditional approaches like atomic force microscopy take all day just to prepare a single sample," said Eldridge.

"It's widely known that cellular stiffness is an indicator of cancer, but there's no viable diagnostic tool that can use that knowledge on a cellular scale," added Wax in a statement. "With this technique, I can see a path to creating a high-throughput system that could quickly and easily screen for cervical, esophageal or colon cancer – anywhere you could take a tissue scraping."

The paper describing the measurement technique has been published in the Biophysical Journal.