Gravity Technology Sets Stage for Earlier Diagnoses

Petri dish with culture in red agar

Two researchers from Johns Hopkins University have developed a method of sorting particles and cells, which could one day be used to diagnose cancers like mesothelioma earlier than current methods.

Mesothelioma, which is frequently diagnosed in later stages, leaves patients with limited treatment options.

This research enables the development of a medical device that doctors could use to test for cancers during routine visits and checkups.

German Drazer, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Jorge Bernate, his doctoral student, developed a lab-on-chip platform that sorts cells by weight, size and other factors using natural forces.

The process, which sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie, utilizes gravity to move cells over multiple tiny ramps to separate them into distinct categories. Applying this process to cancer cells gives experts an opportunity to identify hazardous cells from normal cells, earlier.

Their findings are published in the May 25 issue of Physical Review Letters.

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer affecting nearly 3,000 people annually. The negative prognosis commonly associated with this disease is often attributed to the late diagnosis of the cancer, which is often discovered in Stage III and IV.

Using this gravity technology to reach earlier diagnoses has widespread benefits. Based on the early progress of technology, the university researchers are optimistic of its potential.

Delving into the Details

According to the researchers, an analogy to the process is speed bumps. The microfluidic platform that the research team developed act as micro-sized speed bumps for small biological matter, which includes cancerous cells.

As these cells flow through the body and pass over these microscopic bumps, they can be sorted according to various physical characteristics.

Gravity is used to slow down and regulate the flow of particles over the speed bumps.

Today’s progress is just the tip of the iceberg, according to the pair.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a simple device that can be used in routine checkups by health care providers,” said doctoral student Bernate.

“It could be used to detect the handful of circulating tumor cells that have managed to survive among billions of normal blood cells. This could save millions of lives.”

The hope of the technology is to detect cancerous cells prior to their spread and growth. Treatment options of cancers that have yet to metastasize are significantly more effective and promising compared to cancers that have reached other organs.

Mesothelioma develops in the lining of the lungs. In rarer forms, it can also initially develop in the heart, abdominal cavity or testicle.

“After the particles cross this section of the ‘highway,’ they end up in different ‘lanes’ and can take different ‘exits,’ which allows for their continuous separation.”

This initial identification of cancerous cells enable doctors to take action more quickly.

Current Ways to Diagnose Mesothelioma

Today’s technology allows doctors to diagnose cancers through multiple forms, including biopsies, CT Scans, MRI, X-Rays, PET Scans or blood tests.

Each of these methods involve their own benefits and drawbacks.

Biopsies are considered one of the most effective way to diagnose mesothelioma, with thoracoscopic biopsies providing diagnoses with 98 percent accuracy.

Some of these methods are considered invasive and often don’t happen until months after the patient’s initial visit to the doctor.

The research from Drazer and Bernate could yield a medical device that would give doctors an opportunity to detect the cancer significantly earlier with less inconvenience for the patient. This presents numerous benefits to the entire medical community, along with all those who may one day be diagnosed with mesothelioma and other diseases.


Mark Hall joined the Mesothelioma Center as a writer in 2011. Prior to joining the content team, Mark graduated from the University of Florida and then spent several years writing about business, entrepreneurship and technology for various online publications.

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