People who have just learned they have a tumor face heart-wrenching questions such as: is it cancerous? Will it spread?

Metastasis, the spread of cancer cells from the primary tumor to new areas of the body, is responsible for an alarming 90% of cancer-related deaths. But knowing the risk of metastasis early on can help determine the most effective treatment and improve the patient’s outcome.

A research team led by Technion Professor Daphne Weihs of the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering has developed and tested a biomechanical technology to predict whether a tumor is cancerous, and if so, the likelihood of spreading. The method involves seeding tumor-sampled cells on a special synthetic gel that mimics the physiological stiffness of soft tissue, and then observing the cells’ physical impact on the gel. Normal cells do not indent the gels, but invasive cells will forcefully push into the gel’s surface within one to two hours. Quantification of the number of indenting cells along with other measures provide the likelihood of metastasis. The technology was successfully tested on pancreatic tumor cells samples from volunteers at Rambam Health Care campus and on established breast and pancreatic cell lines used for research. The findings were published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

Current methods to determine the risk of metastasis can take days or weeks of valuable time that some cancer patients do not have, but Prof. Weih’s technology helps determine the patient-specific treatment protocol just hours after an initial biopsy. Such swift assessment not only improves the patient’s survival rate but reduces the psychological stress brought on by long wait times.

Working to make their method widely available to patients, Prof. Weihs said, “The invasiveness of cells sampled from tissues is rapidly and quantitatively evaluated using our innovative mechanical invasive assay, which we are currently developing into a clinically applicable technology.”