Using a conventional blood test and microfluidics, researchers at MIT have developed a less painful approach to testing for multiple myeloma, a cancer of white blood cells. When white blood cells become cancerous, they begin to accumulate in the bone marrow and eventually in the bloodstream. The traditional method to test for multiple myeloma is painful. A needle is inserted near the hipbone and is used to draw a sample of bone marrow. The sample is then analyzed for the presence of cancerous white blood cells.

The approach developed by the MIT researchers involves passing a blood sample through a small microchip with repeating V shaped grooves, similar to a herringbone pattern. The grooves cause the blood to swirl, increasing the chances that the fluid will make contact with the base of the chip. George Whitesides, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University, was the original designer of the chip. The MIT researchers built on this design by adding CD138 antibodies to the base of the chip. When the blood swirled in the grooves, white blood cells in the sample would attach to CD138 antibodies on the chip base.

Very low numbers of white blood cells, only 2 to 5 cells/mL of blood, were found in blood from healthy donor samples when the chip was tested. In contrast, the blood samples of patients with multiple myeloma had 45 to 181 white blood cells/mL. Additionally, researchers were able to detect the ratio of plasma cells producing kappa-type and lambda-type antibodies, which may inform disease progression.

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“Capturing plasma cells from blood samples can serve as a liquid biopsy,” explained former MIT postdoc and lead investigator Mohammad Qasaimeh. “[It] can be performed in clinics as often as required, and serve as a diagnostic and prognostic test during and after chemotherapy treatment. Moreover, captured cells can be used for drug testing and thus serve as a tool for personalized medicine.”


1. Qasaimeh MA, Wu YC, Bose S, et al. Isolation of circulating plasma cells in multiple myeloma using CD138 antibody-based capture in a microfluidic device [published online April 4, 2017]. Sci Rep. doi:10.1038/srep45681