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Detection of cancer cells in the cerebrospinal fluid: current methods and future directions

Cody L Weston, Michael J Glantz and James R Connor*

Author Affiliations

Department of Neurosurgery (H110), Penn State University M.S. Hershey Medical Center, 500 University Dr., Hershey, PA, 17033-0850, USA

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Fluids and Barriers of the CNS 2011, 8:14  doi:10.1186/2045-8118-8-14

Published: 3 March 2011


The spread of cancer into the central nervous system is a serious problem leading to neurological symptoms and rapid mortality. The current tools available for detecting the spread of cancer into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) are cytology, neurologic examination, and neuroimaging. All three of these methods can be applied in concert to reach a diagnosis, but they all suffer from a lack of sensitivity, leading to delays in treatment in many cases. An overview of research tools in the field of CSF cancer detection reveals a variety of promising technologies that can be used to answer questions about the biology of metastatic cancer and to develop more powerful clinical detection methods. Methods currently under investigation include new immunocytochemistry methods and flow cytometry for the in vitro detection of cells. Additionally, polymerase chain reaction, fluorescence in situ hybridization, capillary electrophoresis with laser-induced fluorescence, and mass spectrometry using matrix-assisted laser absorption-deionization time-of-flight and surface-enhanced laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight techniques are being tested for in vitro assessment of the non-cellular biomarkers in CSF. For in vivo detection of cancer in the CSF, research techniques include certain quantum dot platforms as well as magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles. As systemic therapies for cancer improve, the CNS is becoming a more common site of disease recurrence. This increases the importance of effective detection methods in the CSF, since early intervention can maximize therapeutic benefit. Furthermore, many cell-based detection methods can be combined with therapeutic agents to serve multiple medical functions through a common targeting system.