Purdue University researchers create a device that can detect cellular stiffness

Purdue University researchers have created a new device in the lab that could help diagnose cancer that is invading other tissues in the body. One indication that cancer is invading other tissues comes from the stiffening of a structure surrounding cells in the human body. Monitoring changes to that structure, known as the extracellular matrix, could give researchers another way to study the progression of cancer.

The challenge for scientists is that detecting changes in the extracellular matrix is difficult without damaging cells. Researchers from Purdue University have created a device that would allow doctors and researchers to load an extracellular matrix sample onto the platform and detect its stiffness using sound waves. The team says it's the same concept as checking for damage in an airplane wing.

In the sensor, a soundwave propagates through the material and receiver on the other side. The design of the system and the way the soundwave spreads show if there's any damage or defect without impacting the material itself. The nondestructive method developed by the scientists allows the study of how the extracellular matrix responds to disease along with studying how it responds to toxic substances and therapeutic drugs.

The device is called a "lab-on-a-chip" and is connected to a transmitter and receiver. Once the extracellular matrix and the cells it contains is poured onto the platform, the transmitter generates an ultrasonic wave that propagates through the material and triggers the receiver. The output is an electrical signature indicating the stiffness of the extracellular matrix.

The scientists are now studying the effectiveness of the sensor on collagen extracellular matrices. The team is also working on scaling the sensor up to run many samples at once. Being able to run multiple samples at once will allow the team to look at several aspects of the disease at the same time.