An EU-funded research team has developed a biosensor that can identify immune system cells that actively suppress tumour growth. This biosensor can help patients use their immune systems to fight cancer. The COCHISE ('Cell-on-chip biosensor for detection of cell-to-cell interactions') project received EUR 1.74 million under the 'Information Society Technologies' (IST) Thematic area of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
Existing cancer treatments used specifically in immuno-oncology use medications that strengthen the immune system or colony-stimulating factors (CSFs stimulate the production of blood cells). The problem, however, is that these treatments tend to trigger a reaction in patients. Experts have speculated that selecting, amplifying and re-injecting 'active cells' into the body would be a more effective approach, making for a win-win situation with no risk of rejection or side effects. The only glitch, however, is that no simple, cheap and reliable method to identify the active cells is on the market.
COCHISE partners believe their biosensor will change all that thanks to its characteristic of being able to identify interactions between single cells. According to the team, the biosensor detects signals from biological activity.
The researchers explained that in the initial phase, the biosensor uses a mix of microfluidics and electronics to isolate immune system cells and cancer cells in a microwell. Active cells are then identified in phase two. The central factor in this analysis is electronics. Dielectrophoresis, a process used to manipulate particles, forces the cells together and doctors can observe interactions between them. The active cells are then separated from the rest, they said.
'The procedure we identified for measuring cell activity is at the core of the technology,' explained Dr Massimo Bocchi, chief technology officer (CTO) at Italy's MindSeeds Laboratory, a COCHISE partner.
'Basically, we demonstrated, using reference cell lines, that the expected interactions between cells of the immune system and tumour cells can be reproduced in microstructures, such as the microwell, at the single-cell level.
'When an event of interest is measured, [say] a cell of the immune system kills a target tumour cell, the cell of interest can be retrieved from the platform, [and] transferred to a standard plate and culture,' he added. 'This complete workflow allows doctors to study the behaviour of cells because we are able to isolate them on the basis of their functional activity. This is a key innovative concept in this field.'
All in all, the COCHISE team succeeded in obtaining their objective, and also developed a new fabrication process and found appropriate biocompatible materials.
Another positive element of the biosensor is that it could potentially be used to produce targeted cancer vaccines, almost like a 'tuning of the patient's immune system', he noted.
The biosensor has already attracted the attention of the medical sector and industry. 'Several research institutes and hospitals [showed interest] in this platform for studying the mechanisms of the immune system with a single-cell resolution, and to see the potential applicability to gene-therapy applications,' Dr Bocchi said.
The COCHISE consortium consists of eight partners from Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.