University of Washington researchers have developed a prototype version of a device they believe could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose pancreatic cancer. Smaller than a credit card, and snaking with tiny tubes, the device is designed to rely on fluid transport, rather than human hands, to collect patient biopsies.

Being able to diagnose pancreatic cancer early on is paramount for patient survival. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers: Within five years, 94 percent of all cancer patients will die. Within one year, the rate is 74 percent. But pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose early because it doesn’t produce symptoms at early stages of development, and the later symptoms are varied and nonspecific — a casual case of heartburn or a sudden bout of vomiting and diarrhea could both indicate the disease’s presence.

In this regard, any amount of time doctors can shave off in delivering a diagnosis maximizes a patient’s chances of survival. Part of this process includes physicians handling the tissue samples they collect from within the pancreas and analyzing it to check for abnormal cell growth — a hallmark of cancer. Rather than manipulate the biopsy manually, which includes extracting the tissue with a needle before staining it for analysis, the team hopes the new device can perform those later functions automatically, within a matter of minutes.

“This new process is expected to help the pathologist make a more rapid diagnosis and be able to determine more accurately how invasive the cancer has become, leading to improved prognosis,” said Eric Seibel, a UW research professor and director of the Human Photonics Laboratory, in a news release.

Normally, a technician cuts the tissues into slices before staining it and placing it on a microscope slide to check for any abnormalities. But with the implementation of the new device, this 2D representation would be revved up to a comprehensive 3D model that the technology can use to analyze the biopsy’s cellular makeup, eliminating the risks produced by cutting the tissue.

“As soon as you cut a piece of tissue, you lose information about it,” said Ronnie Das, UW postdoctoral researcher involved with the project. “If you can keep the original tissue biopsy intact, you can see the whole story of abnormal cell growth. You can also see connections, cell morphology, and structure as it looks in the body.”

As it stands now, the device is a series of Teflon tubes interlaid within a silicon mold inside a petri dish. The team hopes further iterations of the device will be able to handle multiple biopsies at once — without making the device bigger — and to do all this with 3D imaging. Ultimately, the team has plans to include the technology in an over-the-counter kit to be sold overseas, which would collect samples to send to a patient’s local physician for analysis. Co-researcher Chris Burfeind says this timeline offers his team great hope that the fickle, devastating cancer could soon fall to scientific innovation.

“I see this research as a way to enhance cancer diagnosis and catch it earlier so patients can have a better chance of survival,” he said.