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Novel ultrafast laser detection of cancer cells also may improve understanding of stem cells

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - To investigate tumors, pathologists currently rely on labor-intensive microscopic examination, using century-old cell-staining methods that can take days to complete and may give false readings.

A lightning-fast laser technique, led by Sandia National Laboratories researcher Paul Gourley, has provided laboratory demonstrations of accurate, real-time, high-throughput identification of liver tumor cells at their earliest stages, and without invasive chemical reagents.

The technique generates a laser beam in single human cells pumped from a flask through tiny microchannels. The beam is altered by what it encounters. These changes, registered by an imaging spectrometer, instantly identify cancer-modified mitochondria in cells gone wrong. Mitochondria are known as the power pack of cells, energizing them like batteries do flashlight bulbs.

"There are hundreds of mitochondria, sometimes thousands, in a cell," says Gourley. "To see them in the old way requires a time-consuming process like fluorescent tagging or a chemical reagent. We've found we can see them immediately by light alone."

The techniques could be critical to advancing early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.

More technically put, "To rapidly assess the health of a single mammalian cell," says Gourley, "the key discovery was the elucidation of biophotonic differences in normal and cancer cells by using intracellular mitochondria as biomarkers for disease. This technique holds promise for detecting cancer at a very early stage and could nearly eliminate delays in diagnosis and treatment."

The technique is effective because "it measures changes in the cell architecture, especially those arising from alterations in protein density, cytoskeleton shape, and distribution of mitochondria - changes that occur when a cell becomes cancerous," says Gourley.

"One would think that if a cell became nonfunctional, it would become dis
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Contact: Neal Singer
nsinger@sandia.gov
505-845-7078
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories
23-Mar-2005


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