YOUR HEALTH: Better tracking the cancer cells that spread

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ORLANDO, Florida – Beth McCaw-McKinney did everything right.

"She ate healthy. She exercised," remembered her sister Cathy McCaw-Engleman.

"She always did her breast cancer examinations, pap smears. all that was on time."

But then at age 53 she had her first colonoscopy.

"They found a grapefruit-sized tumor in her colon," said Cathy.   "It was already in her lymph nodes and basically had spread."

Doctors gave Beth three months to live.

She lived three years.

Professor Annette Khaled and her team study metastatic cancer cells and are looking to help people like Beth.   Thanks to a donation from Beth's family, they now have a new weapon in their fight against cancer: the CellSearch system.

"CellSearch is a system that uses blood from cancer patients and we're able to detect circulating tumor cells," said University of Florida post-doctoral scientist Anas Martin.

These are cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body.   The system allows them to separate, analyze and count the number of these cells.

It can detect as few as two to three cancer cells in a teaspoon of blood.

"(Scientists can try to) understand what are the steps and what are the changes that cells undergo, cancer cells undergo, from the tumor to become a circulating tumor cell," explained professor Khaled.

TECHNOLOGY:   Critics point out that the CellSearch only detects EpCAM+ cells, thereby missing CTC lacking EpCAM expression.   Still the CellSearch system remains the gold standard for CTC enumeration and has set the bar quite high.   Over the years several alternative technologies have been developed, reviewed extensively and demonstrated to detect CTC both by targeting EpCAM and not targeting EpCAM but using other characteristics such as physical properties or biological features.   However, up until now it remains difficult to compare these technologies due to the lack of a uniform CTC definition.

"How we can develop therapies to inhibit or prevent these circulating tumor cells?" she asked.

And stop the spread of cancer in its track?

List of contact locations where the CellSearch procedure is being used.

The CellSearch system is FDA approved for clinical purposes and has been around for ten years but only a handful of institutions have one.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

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