A new cancer diagnosis technique that separates cancerous cells from blood may inspire a new form of treatment for the disease. A researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW) who helped devise the test says it could potentially be scaled up to cleanse meaningful quantities of blood, which could then be reintroduced into the body to battle different forms of the disease.

Sniffing out the relatively few cancer cells amongst the billions of healthy blood cells represents one of the major roadblocks to fast diagnosis, though the search for early warning signs has produced some promising results. Applying UVA light analysis to identify stressed, cancer-fighting white blood cells and a test that examines how tumors "educate" blood platelet RNA profiles are just a couple of recent examples.

But Dr Majid Warkiani from UNSW's School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering believes his approach to early diagnosis could actually come to treat the disease as well. He likens the system to a dialysis machine for kidney patients, which filters unwanted waste products from the blood.

It works by isolating circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from a small blood sample. These particular cells are behind the spread of cancer, peeling off solid tumors and slipping into the bloodstream to cause the rise of tumors in other locations around the body. In this state, the system could be used as a early diagnostics tool for any type of cancer, at around one tenth of the cost of other technologies, and also track how well a patient is responding to treatment. But Warkiani has higher hopes for where it might lead.

He says that if this filtering system could work in the same way on a much larger scale, then it could remove cancer-spreading cells from large amounts of blood. This clean blood could then be cycled back into the patient's system to help manage the disease.

"It would be a revolution in cancer treatment," he says. "You would keep filtering out the dangerous cells, prolonging the life of the patient."

Though he is full of optimism, he notes that it is still very early days. The diagnosis technique is currently in clinical trials in the US, UK and Australia, while Singaporean firm Clearbridge BioMedics is seeking to commercialize the technology.

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