Mark Niedre, assis­tant pro­fessor in North­eastern University’s Col­lege of Engi­neering, is devel­oping new tech­nology to track rare cells cir­cu­lating in the blood­stream — a poten­tial break­through that could dra­mat­i­cally expand bio­med­ical research by leading to the detec­tion of metastatic cancer cells and cir­cu­lating hematopoi­etic stem cells.

Ear­lier this year, Niedre received a two-​​year, $400,000 grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health’s R21 pro­gram, which encour­ages highly inno­v­a­tive exploratory research. He pro­poses to build a ring-​​shaped device that will fit around the limb of a mouse and, uti­lizing fiber-​​optics, non-​​invasively view and col­lect data on spe­cific cells that have been flu­o­res­cently tagged as they pass through the mouse’s bloodstream.

Niedre says taking tra­di­tional blood sam­ples might not cap­ture the cells being sought after, and also pro­vides merely a “snap­shot” of the blood­stream, not a con­tin­uous view of how these rare cells are moving about over time. He says his research could prove to be a valu­able tool to under­standing how cancer metas­ta­sizes in the human body and ulti­mately, how those cancer cells respond to new drugs.

If you could track one cell in a mouse, it just opens up all kinds of biology that you just can’t do right now,” Niedre says. “It’s an exciting concept.”

The research also holds the poten­tial for mon­i­toring stem cells, which sci­en­tists say help build the immune system in cancer patients. Niedre says if his work can deter­mine whether cer­tain drugs can keep these stem cells cir­cu­lating in the blood­stream — rather than sticking to bone marrow once injected into the body — then the results could prove to be a valu­able asset in treating cancer and other illnesses.

Niedre and grad­uate stu­dent Eric Zetter­gren are working now on building the pro­to­type of the instru­ment, called a Tomo­graphic in vivo Flow Cytometer, which could be com­plete by the end of the summer

Ulti­mately, Niedre hopes to be able to image an entire living being to fur­ther study where tumors are formed and how cancer spreads in the body.

Often it’s the metas­tasis that kills people, not the pri­mary tumor. I’m really inter­ested in studying that process,” says Niedre, whose research also earned an award last year from the Mass­a­chu­setts Life Sci­ences Center, a quasi-​​public agency of the Com­mon­wealth of Mass­a­chu­setts that pro­motes life sci­ences research and development.