Determining Drug
Efficacy in Advance


A new device can measure the growth of many individual cells simultaneously.

Going through cancer treatment is never easy. You can feel sick afterwards, feel the effects on your physical appearance, and there’s even the emotional and psychological effect as well. What many have long said would help would be if there was a way to know if the drugs being taken were actually going to work ahead of time.

A team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has created a device that may greatly improve the chances of picking the right drug for an individual patient.

Says Keith Ligon, a principal investigator at the Dana-Farber, “Meeting in the early days, [MIT Professor] Scott Manalis was talking about capabilities and about patient cells and moving it out of microorganisms. As a diagnostician, it seemed very advantageous from a basic science standpoint for new measurement of how the cell might be behaving. You have to see the opportunity in assessing a cell while it’s still alive. So much of what we do is equivalent to an autopsy on tissue, but dead tissue is not able to respond. You need design, controls, and experiments to interact and to perturb to get that feedback. For solid tumors, this seemed like a good opportunity for application.”

A suspended microchannel resonator measures particles’ masses as they flow through a narrow channel. Image: Selim Olcum / MIT

The device, called the suspended microchannel resonator, is more of a microchip or microfluidic system, Ligon says. It’s small, to the point where you can see the chip but not the actual measurement resonator, he says, adding that the device is a couple of cells in diameter.

How does it work? “The device is a measuring tool. We flow [the cells] through the device. And as they pass over the measurement cantilever, the cantilever is resonating at a certain frequency. If you measure the same cell and track it over multiple cantilevers, you will see the change in frequency is measurable and, with additional time, if the cells are growing and weighing more than usual. Cells when they grow and divide are usually cancer cells.”

The goal is to tell whether a new drug is effective by seeing how a drug affects a patient over time with the device. “We didn’t screen a large number of drugs but in our first paper we looked at [certain] drugs and knew how they worked and used other methods to see what response would be in cells,” he says. “We compared the results to cell lines for GBM [glioblastoma] and saw the device was very good at prediction for 24, 48, 72 hours and, in our model system, we know this one is sensitive and this one is not.” 

Much testing is still be done but the possible outcome leaves Ligon hopeful for the device’s future role. “This isn’t just potentially critical for drugs to give a patient but also to not put them through more treatment than they have to go through,” he says. “It’s bad enough a person has to deal with cancer but then to find out the drug being administered isn’t even effective in dealing with it? They have enough problems without that being added.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

It’s bad enough a person has to deal with cancer but then to find out the drug being administered isn’t even effective in dealing with it? They have enough problems without that being added.

Dr. Keith Ligon, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute


January 2017

by Eric Butterman,