Device aids cancer fight

Knowing there’s not much that can be done to treat his prostrate cancer, Nelson Bernard has always been a little skeptical about medical research. But after realizing his disease could help others, Bernard’s view has changed.

“I’ve plateaued with treatment. But I figure if I end now, I’ve got grandsons and great-grandsons to think about,” said Bernard, who is donating blood to researchers at the Nevada Cancer Institute for a study using the Cell Tracks System.

“Whatever they can find out from my experience will undoubtedly help those in the future,” he said.

Physicians specializing in cancer treatment are excited about the system’s potential to become a future tool in diagnosing certain cancers more effectively and without the use of biopsies.

Manufactured by Veridex, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, the Cell Tracks System is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for monitoring certain stages of breast cancer, meaning patients are now being tested through the system where it is available.

The anticipation is that the Cell Tracks System will someday be approved for use in monitoring prostate, colon and lung cancers, said Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, director of the Nevada Cancer Institute.

Before that can happen though, studies must assess whether the new intervention is better than the standard.

The system, described as a huge magnet capable of locating and counting circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream, also has the potential to track how circulating tumor cells change during treatment. Circulating tumor cells are cancer cells that have detached from a solid tumor and have entered the bloodstream.

Vogelzang says this is crucial in individual cancer treatment because each patient’s cancer is unique and reacts differently to treatments.

“That’s why we keep talking about individualization of therapy and tailoring the treatment of patients,” he said.

Prostate cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells in the prostate gland. It is estimated that 1,550 Nevadans will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year. About 230 will die because of complications, the American Cancer Society estimates.

If detected early enough, prostate cancer is very treatable, health officials say. But the diagnostic test for the disease — the Prostate-Specific Antigen, or PSA, blood test — isn’t as accurate in advanced stages of prostate cancer. PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland.

Most men with elevated PSA levels have noncancerous prostate enlargement, which is a normal part of aging. Conversely, low levels of PSA in the bloodstream do not rule out the possibility of prostate cancer.

Where the Cell Tracks System is more useful is that it can extract tumor cells from the bloodstream as opposed to just relying on the PSA blood test, which merely measures PSA in the blood.

The level of tumor cells circulating in the blood correlates with the aggressiveness of the patient’s prostate cancer, said Dr. Louis Fink, director of Core Laboratory Services at Nevada Cancer Institute.

Fink said the Cell Tracks System’s ability to tally those circulating tumor cells is what can help physicians determine a patient’s prognosis.

Fink leads the team of researchers studying blood samples of prostate cancer patients, like Bernard’s, to determine how effective the Cell Tracks System is in isolating and counting malignant prostate cancer cells. So far, more than 50 Nevada Cancer Institute prostate cancer patients have donated their blood to the research.

“I think this sounds wonderful,” said Rose, Bernard’s wife. The two recently relocated to Las Vegas from New Mexico. “If they could determine how many cancer cells are floating around in the blood, then they can eventually determine how serious it is. That seems like a pretty good diagnostic tool.”

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