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Duquesne Professor Gets $1.4M Grant To Develop Cancer Detection Tech

If a cancer cell forms in the body, does it make a sound?

John Viator, director of the Duquesne University biomedical engineering program, would say yes—if it’s hit by a laser.

Viator and his team received a five-year, $1.4 million federal grant to use lasers in detecting, capturing and analyzing circulating melanoma cells, which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Melanoma cells contain melanin, the chemical substance that gives color to hair and skin. When struck by a laser, the melanin reacts, giving off a unique sound wave, making it possible to detect the smallest formation of melanoma months, or even years before conventional imaging methods.

“95 to 98 percent of all melanoma cells contain this pigment,” Viator said. “So, when they get into the bloodstream, they are unique in the bloodstream. No other cell has that specific color, which is how we pick out that one cell out of a billion.”

While this isn’t a therapy, Viator said this detection method could lead to more accurate and personalized cancer treatments.

“Cancer biologists can use this device to capture circulating tumor cells, these single cells that are spreading through the body, and do basic science studies to understand the mechanisms of metastatic disease," he said.

This technology can also be used to detect other forms of cancer, according to Viator. While the majority of solid tumor cells in the body don’t have their own pigment, it is possible to attach colored enzymes to the cancerous cells, making them visible to the laser.

“Colored beads and nanoparticles will attach specifically to those cancer cells,” Viator said. “So, basically what you’re doing is you’re painting these other cancer cells so that they too have color just like the melanoma cells have color and you could do the same procedure on them too.”

Viator will partner with former colleagues at the University of Missouri and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in conducting this study.

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."