The Role of Flow Cytometry in Your Cancer Care

As a cancer patient, you may never see a flow cytometer at Roswell Park, but, behind the scenes, this analytical tool plays a vital role in the diagnosis, classification and management of many cancers. I explain a bit more about how flow cytometry may be used in your cancer care in this post, and in the above video.

Flow cytometry is an important tool in the diagnosis and management of certain cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma. The formal definition of flow cytometry, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), is:

A method of measuring the number of cells in a sample, the percentage of live cells in a sample, and certain characteristics of cells, such as size, shape, and the presence of tumor markers on the cell surface. The cells are stained with a light-sensitive dye, placed in a fluid, and passed in a stream before a laser or other type of light. The measurements are based on how the light-sensitive dye reacts to the light.

The types of samples we test using this technique can include blood, bone marrow or tissue, such as lymph nodes. The method assists our multidisciplinary care teams here at Roswell Park in detecting the presence and extent of cancer, planning the most appropriate course of treatment, and in monitoring the effectiveness of treatment.

Flow cytometry is extremely sensitive; so much so that it can detect minimal residual disease, or when a small number of cancer cells remain despite no evidence of disease from other testing. Using the flow cytometers we can pull out that “needle in a haystack,” with capabilities of pinpointing 1 in 10,000 cells. This is particularly helpful in monitoring remission, predicting recurrence and for treatment planning.

Having the ability to rapidly analyze thousands of cells per second also allows for quick answers. We can have the results of a flow cytomtery test back to a clinician within hours, allowing for prompt treatment and ultimately supporting better outcomes, particularly for acute leukemia, a disease that gets worse rapidly if not promptly treated.

In addition to clinical applications, flow cytometry has diverse applications in basic science and cancer research at Roswell Park, making it an invaluable tool for clinical and research teams alike.