Finding cancer cells without a biopsy and surviving coral ‘mega-bleaching’

Bulletins, Media bulletins


A Sydney researcher has developed a diagnostic system that can detect cancer cells in tiny blood samples—separating the few dangerous cancer cells from amongst billions of healthy blood cells.

The new diagnostic tool, now in clinical trials, can detect traces of any type of solid cancer (eg—lung, breast, bowel, etc.) without need for a surgical biopsy, and at a tenth of the cost of competing technologies.

But the next step could be a revolution in cancer treatment: Majid Warkiani (UNSW) wants to use his revolutionary diagnostic technique to filter a patient’s entire system to remove those dangerous cells from a cancer patient’s blood-system—“like a dialysis machine for cancer”.

Majid is one of our 2015 Fresh Scientists. More below.

Also this week: how Japanese corals recovered from the last ‘mega-bleach’ and the implications for reefs expecting another tough year around the Pacific. More below. 

Next week: we’ll have a story from Adelaide about new intranasal childbirth pain relief that’s easier on Mum and bub—it’s nothing to sniff at.

And in January we’ll have more stories from our Fresh Scientists: studying the travel habits of Great Barrier Reef sharks, and using brain tricks to treat footy players’ tendon injuries. These are the guys doing the science that underpins innovation.

Plus there’s 50 Australian science stories to see you over the summer break with more on their way in February. More below.

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Filtering the blood to keep cancer in check

A new diagnostic system used to detect cancer cells in small blood samples could next be turned towards filtering a patient’s entire system to remove those dangerous cells – like a dialysis machine for cancer – says an Australian researcher who helped develop the system.

MajiidThe technique was developed for cancer diagnosis, and is capable of detecting (and removing) a tiny handful of cancer-spreading cells from amongst the billions of healthy cells in a small blood sample.

The revolutionary system, which works to diagnose cancer at a tenth of the cost of competing technologies, is now in clinical trials in the US, UK, Singapore and Australia, and is in the process of being commercialised by Clearbridge BioMedics Pte Ltd Singapore.

The initial challenge in developing the early-warning diagnosis system was to find those few cancer cells amongst billions of healthy blood cells. That challenge was met by a system that ‘spins out’ and isolates circulating tumour cells (CTCs), which are shed into the bloodstream from a solid tumour and can establish tumours elsewhere in the body—the mechanism by which cancer spreads through the body.

The non-invasive ‘liquid biopsy’ can flag the presence of any type of solid cancer (e.g., lung, breast, bowel, etc.) without the need for a surgical biopsy. It can thus be used both for early cancer diagnosis and for monitoring a patient’s response to treatment.
But the potential for the new system goes far beyond just diagnosis.

If the filtering system could be scaled up, a cancer patient’s entire blood supply could potentially be similarly filtered, removing the dangerous cells and cycling the rest of the patient’s blood back into their system. It would be similar to dialysis treatment for kidney patients.

“It would be a revolution in cancer treatment. You would keep filtering out the dangerous cells, prolonging the life of the patient,” says project leader Dr Majid Warkiani, a lecturer at the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at the University of New South Wales, and a project leader at the Australian Centre for NanoMedicine.

“There is still a long way to go—including securing money and support in Australia—before this is possible,” Majid says.

But he believes this new technology will become one of the essential components of routine cancer management in the near future.

“A therapeutic version of this system, used for blood cleansing, could make the cancer a chronic disease and decrease drastically its mortality rate,” he says.

Majid was the NSW winner of Fresh Science, a national program that helps early-career researchers find and share their stories of discovery. Fresh Science is helping to build a cadre of skilled science communicators. In 2015, Fresh Science ran in every mainland state, with 180 early-career researchers nominating for the six Fresh Science events held this year in Melbourne, Townsville, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Sydney.

Over 50 early-career researchers nominated for Fresh Science NSW, which was held at the Australian Museum (training) and Three Wise Monkeys Hotel (public challenge event) and was supported by the Australian Museum and the University of New South Wales.

Images and animation available at

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Stay-at-home Japanese corals offer El Niño recovery clues

reefIt seems corals might not travel as far as we thought, offering clues to how a reef recovers after a bleaching event.

A decade-long recovery from a massive coral bleaching event in Japan’s Okinawa Islands was thought to have been ‘seeded’ by coral spores from another, distant reef. But new research has proved that wasn’t the case.

In recovering from such drastic events, it looks like isolated coral have to go it alone.

The Okinawa Islands coral reefs, southwest of Japan, took a decade to recover from the global bleaching event launched by the most recent ‘super’ El Niño, in 1997-98.

Previously it had been thought that the reef’s eventual recovery had been via repopulation from another reef – from the Kerama Islands some 40km to the north. But now genome analysis of the two coral groups has confirmed almost zero mixing. The conclusion is that the Okinawa corals must have recovered from the few surviving corals in situ.

The findings are particularly important as the world stares down another ‘super’ El Niño and expected global coral bleaching event.

The story comes from researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, which has strong links to Australian researchers. Project lead, Chuya Shinzato, is a James Cook University graduate. This research was first published on 10 December 2015 in the journal Scientific Reports.

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(Summer) Stories of Australian Science

As 2015 draws to a close, science and innovation are back in fashion. So, if you’re looking for stories for the summer, or for longer term projects, take a look at our 2015 collection of Stories of Australian Science.

storybookIt features more than 50 stories and celebrates the best in Australian science, with reports on:

  • 3D-printed jet engines and the underground hunt for dark matter;
  • printed body parts and insulin in plant seeds; and
  • better-tasting bread for China and the underlying genetics of epilepsy.

The stories are mainly from 2014 and early 2015, but most of them will have further developments and new news angles.

All the stories are available online (with photos) at, where you can filter by state, discipline and organisation, as well as search by keyword.

This collection is designed to present the best and most interesting science in Australia—please follow up with any of the scientists whose research is of interest to you. Or let me know and I can help you make contact.

We’ll also have a new collection of Stories of Australian Science in February/March. If you’d like us to send you a hard copy just let me know your postal address.

And, we’ll have more Fresh Science stories in January. These are mostly smaller stories but of real discoveries by young researchers with little or no prior press exposure. They’ve all been mentored by us over the past year.

More about Science in Public

We’re always happy to help put you in contact with scientists. Our work is funded by the science world – from the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes to Nature. We’re keen to suggest interesting people and stories – and not just those of our clients’.

If you’re looking for ideas or people for features we know hundreds of science prize winners past, present, and future and are always happy to chew the fat about the developing themes in Australian science.

Feel free to pass these stories along to colleagues. And between bulletins, you can follow me on Twitter (@scienceinpublic) for more science news and story tips.
Kind regards,

Niall Byrne

Creative Director
Science in Public

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