Sifting for Cancer Cells
By Erick Schonfeld

(Business 2.0) – Cancer treatment is notoriously inexact. To make it more effective, doctors need a better way to detect cancerous cells spreading in patients' blood. That would allow them to quickly halt therapies that aren't working and confirm the effectiveness of those that are--a process that could significantly improve survival rates.

Doctors may get that better detector in June, when Veridex, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, is expected to launch CellSearch, a new test that can identify a single tumor cell in a blood sample containing millions of healthy cells. CellSearch exposes blood to a reagent containing polymer-coated iron nanoparticles that bind to cancerous cells. A magnetic field then draws the nanoparticles to the walls of a test tube, and a fluorescent tag is applied so the tumor cells can be viewed and manipulated more easily. Initially approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the detection of metastatic breast cancer, CellSearch could also be used to find other forms of cancer in the years ahead.

Just one hurdle remains: Johnson & Johnson is awaiting FDA clearance for the machine that reads test results. But that's not holding back the biotech company that licensed the technology to J&J. Pennsylvania-based Immunicon has already filed for an IPO. -- ERICK SCHONFELD