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MU lab uses lasers to detect metastasized skin cancer faster

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Researchers at the Viator Lab at MU’s School of Biological Engineering are working to detect cancer cells using lasers. John Viator now works at Duquesne University, where the lab will move in May. This is the step-by-step process involved in the procedure.

COLUMBIA — Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, killing more than 12,000 people in the U.S. each year. According to the American Cancer Society, 9,000 of those deaths are caused by melanoma.

Once melanoma spreads, or metastasizes, only 15 percent of patients survive, according to the Skin Cancer Society. So early detection isthe key to survival.

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John Viator and MU's Viator Lab have developed a technology, the Viator Technologies Inc. Circulating Tumor Cell System 3.0 (VTI CTCS 3.0), which they say detects metastasized cancer cells faster than current methods in use. 

"We've built the machine, we've convinced people that it does what it does, and now they can buy it," Viator said.

Viator, Viator Technologies Inc. chief scientific officer, has been applying photoacoustic technology to the detection of circulating tumor cells since 2005. At the International Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference in San Francisco in February, he announced the market launch of the VTI CTCS 3.0.  

"We have launched as a product for research use," Viator said. "Although the market is small, there are a lot of researchers who want to use it to study melanoma for scientific use."

Viator is working to take the technology to a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments laboratory within the next two years and to the FDA in the future for diagnostic use.

"We want to make sure that no one has to die from (skin cancer) because they know soon enough that the treatment can be introduced before it gets really bad," said Ben Goldschmidt, graduate researcher in the Viator Lab. 

Currently, detecting metastasized skin cancer is expensive and can take months as it cannot be detected until a tumor has formed. The VTI CTCS 3.0 will allow doctors to determine whether cancer has spread to a patient's blood stream within a matter of seconds, adding significantly to a patient's treatment time and chance for survival. 

"We are focused on creating an actual solution to a problem," said Mark Messler, undergraduate researcher. "It's a very broad problem and we get to design a solution to it — you really get to use your creativity."

The device, which Goldschmidt nicknamed the "Viatron," works by flowing cells through a small tube, directing a laser at the tube and monitoring the reaction.

"The tool itself is cool to look at," said Amanda Kappele, a Hughes Research Fellow who works with the Viator Lab. "I also really liked what they were applying it to."

As the laser hits the cells, an ultrasonic microphone detects the dark, cancerous cells and emits a sound wave while clear, non-cancerous cells will produce little to no sound.

"It's really kind of a game changer in cancer detection," Goldschmidt said. "If you know even a single week in advance, that's an extra week you can be getting treated."

Because the VTI CTCS 3.0 is much cheaper than MRI tests, patients will be able to monitor their risk for cancerous tumors more frequently.

"No one should have to wake up every day for six months and wonder if they have cancer," Goldschmidt said.

In June, Viator Labs is planning to relocate to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh where Viator is currently creating a biomedical engineering department for the university. They will continue to further develop the laser technology to detect all types of cancers.

"The better we get at detecting skin cancer, the better (we will be able) to detect other types of cancers in the future," Messler said.


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