Melanoma Study that Could Lead to Earlier Cancer Detection Receives NIH Support with $1.4 Million Grant

Posted on April 9, 2014

The University's newly established biomedical engineering initiative has made an immediate impact at Duquesne, as Dr. John Viator, director of the program, has received a $1.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute to detect, capture and analyze circulating melanoma cells.

Viator, a specialist in medical lasers, will use this technology to analyze patients' blood samples in hopes of detecting the spread of this cancer months or even years before it could be identified by conventional imaging.

The focus on melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, arose while Viator was working on separate research to use lasers in a non-invasive way to determine the severity of a burn injury. A surgical oncologist asked if the method could find melanoma cells circulating in the bloodstream, as it attempts to spread throughout the body.

The duo then developed a method of zapping a blood sample as it circulated through a system. If even a single cell contains melanoma, a high frequency sound wave identifies it as cancerous-leading to possible early, personalized intervention.

"Once you capture these individual cancer cells, you can do molecular tests, genetic tests, image them under a microscope and learn more about that particular cancer and how it's spreading," explained Viator. "Instead of blindly prescribing chemotherapies, if you capture the individual cells that are spreading, you can verify the type of melanoma that responds well to a certain drug."

The grant not only supports refining the method and studying the basic science of melanoma and cancer biology, but will provide for a study of cancer patients to predict and observe the disease state and the response to therapy.

Viator will collaborate with his former colleagues from the University of Missouri and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the work, which also will involve the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. "It was very fortunate for me to come to Duquesne and have one of the leading melanoma groups here in the same city," he said. "This focus will bring a whole new aspect to their research.

The grant from the NIH was reviewed by peer scientists and awarded based on the outstanding resources at Duquesne and Pittsburgh," said Viator. "This award shows that Duquesne University and the biomedical engineering program are already having great impact in improving human health."