Ultrasound imaging is a valuable, noninvasive way to detect and track cancerous tumors. But it doesn’t reveal details like cell types or mutations, which usually require harmful biopsies. At the University of Alberta, engineering professor Dr. Roger Zemp’s team developed a gentle method using intense ultrasound to get this important genetic information. This process collects disease markers from cells. These markers, such as miRNA, mRNA, DNA, or mutations, help identify cancer types and plan treatment.

Ultrasound-Enhanced Blood Tests

“Ultrasound, at exposure levels higher than is used for imaging, can create tiny pores in cell membranes, which safely reseal,” Zemp says. “This process is known as sonoporation. The pores formed due to sonoporation were previously used to get drugs into cells and tissues. In our case, we care about releasing the contents of cells for diagnostics.”

The ultrasound releases biomarkers from the cells into the bloodstream, increasing their concentration to a level high enough for detection. Using this method, oncologists can detect cancer and monitor its progression or treatment without the need for painful biopsies. Instead, they can use blood samples, which are easier to procure and less expensive.

“Ultrasound can enhance the levels of these genetic and vesicle biomarkers in blood samples by over 100 times,” says Zemp. “We were able to detect panels of tumor-specific mutations, and now epigenetic mutations that were not otherwise detectable in blood samples.”

Not only was this approach successful at detecting biomarkers, but it also boasts a lower price compared to conventional testing. 

Ultrasound Redefines Cancer Testing

“We’ve also found that we can conduct ultrasound-aided blood testing to look for circulating tumor cells in blood samples with single-cell sensitivity for the price of a COVID test,” says Zemp. “This is significantly cheaper than the current methods, which cost about $10,000 per test.”

The team also demonstrated the potential for applying intense ultrasound to liquefy small volumes of tissue for biomarker detection. The liquified tissue can be retrieved from blood samples or through fine-needle syringes, a much more comfortable option compared to the damaging core-needle alternative.

Minimally Invasive Cancer Diagnostics

More accessible techniques to identify cancer will not only allow for earlier detection and treatment but will also allow medical practitioners to be nimble in their approach. They can establish if certain therapies are working without the risks and expenses often associated with repeated biopsies.

“We hope that our ultrasound technologies will benefit patients by providing clinicians a new kind of molecular readout of cells and tissues with minimal discomfort,” says Zemp.