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Not all cancer cells are created equal. Only a small number of cells in a patient’s initial tumor may have the power to travel through the blood, cross the protective membrane known as the blood-brain barrier, and directly attack the brain.

But which cells? What makes them special? How can we target them? Which drugs are they vulnerable to? How likely is it that a patient’s initial tumor will metastasize to the brain?

These questions are being tackled by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. Their innovative approach combines advanced live-cell imaging techniques, the analytic power of artificial intelligence, and a 2-by-3-inch device that mimics the critical “micro-environment” at the interface between the bloodstream and the brain.

Although still undergoing further testing, the platform shows “remarkably sharp and reproducible distinctions” between cells that metastasize to the brain and those that don’t, according to a recent study in Lab on a Chip, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop a rapid, low-cost diagnostic tool that can help to predict outcomes at the time of initial diagnosis,” says study senior author Sofia Merajver, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk and Evaluation Program at the Rogel Cancer Center. “We might, for example, want to recommend a more aggressive treatment approach to someone whose tumor has a higher probability of spreading to the brain — especially if we knew how to specifically target those cells that are capable of broaching the blood-brain barrier.”

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