Swiss Hospital Tests New Cancer Tool Developed by IBM Scientists

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IBM scientists are partnering with pathologists in Zurich, Switzerland to help unravel tumors and to assist in personalized treatment strategies.

Tissue staining is widely used in pathology to detect disease markers in a patient’s sample. More specifically, a particular disease marker is bound with an antibody, which is then chemically colored or stained on the tissue. The intensity of the color classifies and determines the extent of a disease. 

IBM’s Microfluidic Probe

Tissue staining is a tedious process with many chemical steps analogous to developing photographs, whereby too much chemical solution or long exposures can overdevelop the sample or photo. This, in addition to tissue sample sizes, which can be as small as a pinhead, can create significant challenges for even the most seasoned pathologists.

Several years ago IBM scientists in Zurich, who have decades of experience working with silicon for microelectronics, thought about how they could apply their knowledge of working with tiny structures to this pathology challenge. 

The result is what IBM scientists call a microfludic probe, which resembles the nib of a fountain pen.

Dr. Alex Soltermann

How does it work?

The eight-millimeter-wide, diamond-shaped probe injects very small volumes of chemical compounds known as reagents on the tissue surface and then continuously aspirates the reagents to prevent spreading and accumulation. This approach is used to deliver and retrieve reagents locally in selected areas of a tissue section with pinpoint accuracy. This local interaction with the tissue sample helps in mapping the heterogeneity in the tissue.

“Pathologists are determined to obtain as much accurate information as possible from markedly small biopsy samples,” said Dr. Alex Soltermann, a pathologist specializing in lung cancer at the Institute for Surgical Pathology of the University Hospital Zürich. 

He adds, “We hope to introduce new technologies, such as the microfluidic probe, into the clinical molecular pathology diagnostic framework to enable a range of investigations, which were previously thought to be infeasible. If we are successful, the tool will be a driver for personalized medicine, and translate into increased confidence in diagnosis and better detection of predictive cancer markers.”

“For about a year we have been testing the probe in our lab, and initial results are very encouraging – we are now developing the technology in the context of important aspects in pathology,” said Dr. Govind Kaigala, a scientist at IBM Research – Zurich. “Over the next several months, we will install a prototype device at the hospital and work alongside pathologists.

IBM scientists aspire to eventually partner with a medical equipment manufacturer to license the technology and bring it to market as a tool to assist pathologists in making challenging and critical decisions. 

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