Our fight against cancer has been ongoing for almost all of recorded history, and unfortunately, nearly always have we lost that fight. Cancer dates back to very ancient times, in which evidence for it was discovered in human mummies of ancient Egypt and in ancient manuscripts.
The earliest report on cancer was in the Edwin Smith Papyrus of ancient Egypt (~ 3000 B.C.), which also described how to remove tumours by cauterization – a medical practice used to remove a part of a body by burning. This text, unsurprisingly, said that “there is no treatment” for this disease; and this has been the notion for thousands of years, partly due to the old Greek tradition of not cutting the body, but this did not stop us from discovering that cancer could take place in any part of the body. Fast forward to the 19th century, after dissecting bodies became more tolerable, we began having a better understanding of the repercussions and damage caused by cancer with the birth of scientific oncology – the study of tumours. We also started having more accurate surgery and diagnosis, gradually approaching the fact that cancer might be treatable, as opposed to what the ancient texts implied.
Cancer, basically, arises when particular cells start growing uncontrollably, making new cells, and pushing normal cells out, resulting in a malfunction in the way the body is supposed to work. When these tumour cells spread, it is called metastasis. Today, medical advancements and modern technologies have strengthened our side of the fight against cancer, helping us truly believe that in the very near future, not only can we hold cancer back, but we can actually defeat it. Nonetheless, we have yet to come up with a treatment that would eliminate cancer cells without having devastating side effects on the normal ones.
Typically, the first step in cancer treatment is the crucial stage of diagnosis. Diagnosis is when the detection, identification and characterization of the disease takes place. Unfortunately, it is a highly challenging process, due to the scarcity of cancer cells, especially during metastasis. In blood, for example, it is extremely difficult to find cancer cells – known as circulating tumour cells (CTCs) – as they are so rare, where for every billion (10^9) blood cells, there is 1-100 tumour cells – it is like finding a needle in a haystack. Luckily, however, our technologies in the fields of molecular biology, biomechanics and bioengineering have been developing quite rapidly, and many new methods and devices have been proposed in research which could provide efficient, early diagnosis. The probability of a positive treatment can be significantly enhanced by early detection of the disease. As the World Health Organization (WHO) states, the early detection of cancer constitutes of two main parts: education and awareness among the healthcare providers and the public to endorse early diagnosis, and screening – the act of identifying the possible presence of the disease before the emergence of any symptoms.
So, in terms of the diagnosis of cancer, clearly the earlier it can be done, the better. This is where a field called microfluidics comes into place. Microfluidics is relatively a new field of study that describes the behaviour of fluids at the microscale – the scale at which cells exist. The reason this field has been studied quite extensively in recent years is the substantial advantage it has over conventional methods of cancer diagnosis. This advantage lies in efficiency, portability, reliability and cost-effectiveness as it provides high precision and accuracy. It is convenient due to its miniature size, and is consistent and relatively cheap thanks to its straightforward operation and the materials used to fabricate it. Numerous studies and applications have been proposed and reviewed, and some were proved highly effective, and are being used commercially. My contribution to this research area happened during the final 2 years of my undergraduate studies in Istanbul, Turkey. Together with my colleague at the time, U. M. Sonmez, as we were working in Prof. Levent Trabzon’s MEMS Laboratory at Istanbul Technical University (ITU), we investigated the behaviour of cells within a fluid sample flowing through a microchannel. Based on the empirical data we collected and previously performed studies, we designed a new microchannel configuration that would result in a significantly high detection efficiency (> 90%). We were also able to demonstrate its capacity to be integrated with other parts to compose a portable, highly efficient, reliable and cheap device. For more details on this, our work was published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering; make sure to check it out.
As our fight against cancer continues, we aspire and strive to reinforce our side of the fight, even with small steps like this, until we reach the day where we can win over and cure ourselves of this inveterate disease; and luckily, I would confidently say, this day seems to be pending in the very near future.
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Born in 1992 in El Chouf, Lebanon, Samir grew up dreaming of becoming a scientist and an explorer. Today, he is a former bioengineering and nanotechnology research engineer who has contributed to award-winning projects on cancer diagnosis and silicon-based nanofabrication. He is currently a science communicator and content writer, and is influenced by scientists such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.
Living between Lebanon and Germany, he aims to inform, inspire, educate and entertain readers in various areas of science and engineering by simplifying complex topics, triggering curiosity, provoking thoughts about science and the natural world, and as he says, “gradually bridging the information gap.”