CERVICAL CANCER: Device reveals key changes to surfaces
POTSDAM — Clarkson University researchers have discovered a feature of cervical cancer cells that might help doctors identify the disease earlier.
Using an atomic force microscope, Igor Sokolov and his team were able to see that the cancer cells have different surface features from normal cells.
A professor in the Center for Advanced Materials Processing and director of Clarkson’s Nanoengineering and Biotechnology Laboratories, Mr. Sokolov said he and his team were interested in using the advanced microscope to take a different look at cancer.
“People keep saying that we’ve been studying cells for close to a century and the biochemical methods for the study of cancer are quite old, but there has been no dramatic progress. We’re sort of running out of speed,” Mr. Sokolov said. “We decided to try looking at it from a different perspective.”
The research group prodded and examined epithelial cervical cancer cells under the powerful atomic force microscope. They noticed the cancer cells had prominent microridges and microvilli — which are basically tiny “brushes” and “hairs” protruding from the surface.
“We pushed and squeezed them to see how they behaved, how they responded. It was surprisingly different, not what people reported before,” Mr. Sokolov said.
The healthy normal cells displayed brushes of uniform length, while the cancer cells had brushes of different lengths and densities.
The findings could be useful for gynecologists. Pap smears, a screening test that provides samples of the same cervical material that Mr. Sokolov and his crew looked at, aren’t very accurate in determining whether a woman has cervical cancer.
“A Pap smear gives a crude indication of whether there is abnormality. It just tells us if there are suspicious cells. Our test shows if they are cancerous or not. It’s simply a more precise test, and it’s quicker than what people use right now,” he said.
“Precancerous cells are really a big problem. They’re a ticking time bomb. They have bad genes and they may already be abnormal, but they’re not fastly growing. They’re benign,” Mr. Sokolov said. “So we’re going to see if we can detect those.”
Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted infection. According to the National Cancer Institute, 11,070 cases were identified and 3,870 women died of the cancer in the U.S. in 2008.
The researchers hope to examine other forms of cancer cells soon.
The research team includes graduate students Ravi M. Gaikwad and Venkatesh Subba-Rao, biology professor Craig D. Woodworth and Swaminathan Iyer, a postdoctoral fellow in physics.
Their findings were published recently in the scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology.