One in a billion: finding stray cancer stem cells

Cancer patients and their doctors face daunting challenges at the time of diagnosis. Many crucial questions either cannot be answered or rely upon relatively low-tech methods whose accuracy is far from ideal. For example, how aggressive is this tumor? Has it already spread?

After diagnosis and initial treatment, it is critical to monitor patients for recurrence, but for decades there have not been adequate tools to do this for most cancers. Thus, patients and their doctors are often left to wonder if their cancer has recurred and they just don’t know it. Detecting recurrence earlier would also greatly enhance the efficacy of treatments.

Often times, during the early stages of initial treatment it is also unclear just how well certain approaches such as specific chemotherapeutic drugs are working.

A new tool has been developed that directly addresses these challenges. Johnson and Johnson announced a new cancer detection tool that reportedly can detect one cancer cell amongst a billion normal ones. To illustrate the power of such a tool, it would be the equivalent to detecting only a half dozen specific people on the entire planet Earth.


The technology is akin to a microscopic array of nearly 80,000 fishing lures that will only hook cancer cells. The lures in this case are antibodies specific to cancer cell proteins.

Other companies and academic researchers have developed or are developing similar technology as well.

Many important questions remain however.

For example, what does the presence of 1 or 2, or 5, or 100 cancer cells out of a billion mean for the patient?

How accurate are these tests? In other words, could they be fishing out cells that are not cancer cells?

Are the cells detected cancer stem cells?

Could these tests be used for screening at-risk populations for initial diagnosis?

If so, how much will these tests cost? A similar product already on the market by J&J, CellSearch, costs several hundred dollars.