Cancer test delivers results within hours, potentially saving lives

The MinION solution combines medicine, engineering and computer technology to vastly speed up cancer diagnostics.

Cancer (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Cancer (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Cancer patients are being given a head start on beating the disease, thanks to a new diagnostic test that can detect the presence of cancer cells within hours rather than the weeks it currently takes.
A research team from Tel Aviv University's Zimin Institute for Engineering Solutions Advancing Better Lives, led by Prof. Noam Shomron and doctoral student Artem Danilevsky, have developed a new tool based on a genetic sequencing device, which can detect cancer cells in the abdominal cavity in real time.
Currently, when a tumor is removed, Shomron explained, there are often undetected cancer cells left within the abdomen which can spread to other parts of the body if not tackled with chemotherapy. Standard cancer cell detection tests take weeks to produce a result, drastically increasing the risk that cancer may spread during the interim.
But the solution engineered by Shomron and Danilevsky, called MinION, produces a result within hours, eliminating that window of risk. The team was sure it would be a useful addition to the diagnostic toolkit: The only problem was finding an institution willing to help assess the new technology for accuracy in a pilot trial.
“The Institute was searching for an engineering application to improve life,” Shomron explained. “They asked for novel and unique projects, projects that would not get funding from any other foundation, but will be implementable. We combined several research areas in order to offer a smart and fast diagnostic tool, but there were no 'buyers.'
"We went through various hospital divisions and asked the doctors: ‘Who wants a DNA test done in an hour?’ Fortunately, we found Dr. Lahat, Division of Surgery director at [Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center] Ichilov, who jumped on the opportunity to shorten and improve diagnostic processes – for the benefit of cancer patients.”
Working alongside Lahat, Shomron's team was able to put MinION to use, assessing patients for risk of cancer spread.
"We waited outside Dr. Guy Lahat’s operating room at the Division of Surgery at Ichilov, and during the surgery, Dr. Shelly Loewenstein collected a small part of the abdominal cavity fluid sample for us. The sample itself was also sent simultaneously to the standard lab test, the results of which would arrive after a few weeks. Meanwhile, we inserted our sample into the MinION to calculate whether it contains cancer cells or healthy ones," Shomron explained. 
"It’s a lot less complicated than sequencing the whole genome. If the results turned out positive, Dr. Lahat would go ahead with a designated abdominal cavity chemotherapy treatment. Afterwards, he would perform a saline washing, take another sample and repeat the cycle again, until we ensure that the patient is free of cancer cells.
“With a simple but smart application based on existing technology, we can outline a lifesaving medical treatment,” the professor added.
The researchers have stressed that MinION is still in an initial trial phase, and will take some time to become a mainstay of cancer diagnostics. However, the team is already looking ahead to possible improvements. They hope that within the next few years, it may be possible to detect cancer cells in the body simply through taking a standard blood sample as an outpatient procedure, rather than during surgery.