Nanotechnology and the Atomic Force Microscope Can Detect Cancer Cells Quickly and Accurately

Researchers and scientists from The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have used a new nanotechnology technique to detect cancer cells. The new nanotechnology technique is able to feel the roughness of the cell surface and predict if it is a cancerous cell or a non-cancerous cell.

The study, published in the leading-edge scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology, is titled "Nanomechanical analysis of cells from cancer patients” and was led by Dr. Rao from UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center. This is the first time that scientists are able to differentiate cancer cells from normal cells using nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology as it is understood today is science and engineering at the scale of atoms and molecules. One nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology works with structures of 100 nanometers or less. Nanotechnology as a diverse and multidisciplinary field can be used to create materials and find solutions to wide ranges of issues in medicine, electronics, and energy production.

The new nanotechnology technique used to detect cancerous cells using the flexibility concept of the cells. Cancerous cells become more flexible since they need to sort a series of obstacles to travel from one part of the body to another one. Non-cancerous cells on the contrary are stiffer. This difference in flexibility and/or stiffness can be detected by a new Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). The Atomic Force Microscope employs a very small tip that “feels” the cell surface and determines the degree of roughness. It basically maps the topography of the cell.

What researchers did is to collect samples of lung, breast and pancreatic cancer patients. Using a regular microscope all cells would look very similar and there was no way to differentiate cancerous from non-cancerous cells. Traditional staining methods have a limited efficiency (less than 70%) in detecting cancerous cells.

But with the use of the AFM, which work at the nanometer level, a softness value can be assigned to each cell from a patient to classify it as cancerous or not cancerous. This will have tremendous applications on cancer diagnosing. This technique will be more accurate than traditional methods that involve killing and staining cells.

The new nanotechnology approach to differentiate and detect cancerous cells will find many applications in the complex and vast array of cancer diagnosis test. Current and traditional ways of cancer-diagnosing methods are difficult, tedious, and not very efficient. The new science on nanotechnology will certainly overcome all these limitations

Rao et al. 2007. Nanomechanical analysis of cells from cancer patients. Nature Nanotechnology Published online: 2 December 2007 | doi:10.1038/nnano.2007.388. URL: