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What does cancer sound like?

21 August 2013

Toronto -

You might describe Dr Michael Kolios as a really good listener. The physicist at Toronto’s Ryerson University is researching a cancer-detecting device that will help him “listen” to the sounds produced by normal and abnormal cells in the blood, research that could eventually be used for the early detection of cancer.

Dr Kolios, an international expert in ultrasound and photo-acoustic imaging, has received an Innovation Grant worth $170,000 from the Canadian Cancer Society to develop the technique and test the futuristic device.

Using a customized microscope that combines ultrasound and laser technology, Dr Kolios will eavesdrop on the sounds of cells by firing ultrasound and laser waves at drops of a patient’s blood. When hit with laser light, the cells produce a high-frequency squeal allowing researchers to take pictures of the sound waves and create sound profiles for different cells in the blood.

The group will then test the technique on cells inside the body by running the device over superficial veins, akin to the fictional tricorder used in the TV series Star Trek. The challenge is to distinguish the sounds of cancer cells from the normal cells, which will be done using a series of very complex calculations.

Dr Kolios and his colleagues will be the first to use a laser to create sound waves and to use very high frequency ultrasound detection. Combined together, these innovations provide greater sensitivity and specificity for detecting abnormal cells.

When he first proposed this research idea, Dr Kolios was told it couldn’t be done and was too risky to attempt. However, his intuition and his sense of curiosity told him otherwise.

“I said I’ll take the risk because that’s what the science tells me I should do,” says Dr Kolios, a physics professor at Ryerson University and Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Applications of Ultrasound.

If successful, this new device could be used to detect cancer cells in the blood during routine blood tests. Currently, a separate test has to be ordered. By listening to and interpreting the sounds cells make, doctors might be able to tell, before symptoms occur, whether you’re healthy or if an illness is developing.

Dr Kolios’ ultimate goal is to develop an automated instrument to detect blood cancers as early as possible as well as differentiate cancer cells that are in the process of metastasizing (spreading). Research shows that most cancer deaths are the result of cancer that has spread from its original location.

“Dr Kolios’ project epitomizes the kind of risky, but potentially rewarding research we’re supporting through our Innovation Grants,” says Dr Siân Bevan, the director of research for the Canadian Cancer Society. “He is opening up new opportunities to detect blood cancers earlier and spot those cancers that have broken free from their initial site in the process of spreading. We are thrilled to be able to support projects like this and the 36 other Innovation Grants announced today that have potential to dramatically change the way we approach cancer research and treatment.”

The grant was one of five funded in this competition in partnership with the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation. The Foundation is excited to support the Society’s Innovation Grants program because of the unconventional and promising nature of the projects.

“This is wonderful support from a Foundation that recognizes the potential that lies in unconventional approaches to research,” says Pamela Fralick, President and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society. “We are grateful to all our donors who continue to demonstrate their confidence in the Society’s top-quality research program.”

Backgrounder: More about the Innovation Grants

About the Canadian Cancer Society

For 75 years, the Canadian Cancer Society has been with Canadians in the fight for life. We have been relentless in our commitment to prevent cancer, fund research and support Canadians touched by cancer. We are the country’s largest, national charitable funder of cancer research. Together with our donors, we have contributed more than $1.2 billion to Canadian research programs. We work with Canadians to change cancer forever so fewer Canadians are diagnosed with the disease and more survive. Visit cancer.ca or call us at 1-888-939-3333 (TTY 1-866-786-3934).

For more information, please contact:

Rosie Hales

Communications Specialist

Canadian Cancer Society

National office

Phone: 416 934-5338