Duquesne University Awarded $1.4 Million NIH Grant


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Duquesne University’s newly established biomedical engineering initiative has received a $1.4 million, 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute to detect, capture and analyze circulating melanoma cells.

John Viator, MD, Biomedical Engineering Program Director at Duquesne, and a specialist in medical lasers, will use this technology to analyze patients’ blood samples in hopes of detecting the spread of this potentially fatal skin cancer months or even years before it could be identified by conventional imaging.

Serendipitous Finding

The focus on melanoma arose while Dr. Viator was working on separate research to use lasers in a noninvasive way to determine the severity of a burn injury. A surgical oncologist colleague asked if the method could be used to find melanoma cells circulating in the bloodstream, as it attempts to spread throughout the body.

The duo then developed a method of zapping a blood sample as it circulated through a system. If even a single cell contains melanoma, a high frequency sound wave identifies it as cancerous—leading to possible early, personalized intervention.

“Once you capture these individual cancer cells, you can do molecular tests, genetic tests, image them under a microscope, and learn more about that particular cancer and how it’s spreading,” explained Dr. Viator. “Instead of blindly prescribing chemotherapies, if you capture the individual cells that are spreading, you can verify the type of melanoma that responds well to a certain drug.”

Duquesne’s grant not only supports refining the method and studying the basic science of melanoma and cancer biology, but will provide for a study of cancer patients to predict and observe the disease state and the response to therapy.

Dr. Viator will collaborate with his former colleagues from the University of Missouri and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the work, which also will involve the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. ■


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