University of Georgia

Isolating tumor cells

UGA researcher Leidong Mao

Cells that break away from a cancerous tumor offer a lot of information, potentially leading to new avenues of research, quicker diagnoses and targeted treatments. The challenge is finding these tumor cells and separating them from the billions of other cells circulating in a person’s bloodstream.

UGA researchers collaborating with scientists at several institutions have created a microfluidic device to isolate tumor cells quickly and efficiently. In a paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Lab on a Chip, the researchers said their technology recovered nearly 93 percent of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) for analysis. Existing, similar devices typically recover only 82 percent.

The new device funnels blood through channels smaller than a human hair. By magnetizing the medium surrounding the cells, the researchers are able to drive cancer cells and blood cells into separate streams based on differences in their size.

“Instead of searching for and enriching the few CTCs that exist in a sample of blood, we’re taking the opposite approach and eliminating everything we are not interested in—the red blood cells, the white blood cells and other components,” said Leidong Mao, senior author and associate professor in the College of Engineering.

Wujun Zhao, a doctoral student in UGA’s department of chemistry, part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, served as lead author.

This brief appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Research Magazine. The original press release is available at