Circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) from whole blood are emerging as important biomarkers that potentially aid in cancer diagnosis and prognosis. The microfilter technology provides an efficient capture platform for them but is confounded by two challenges. First, uneven microfilter surfaces makes it hard for commercial scanners to obtain images with all cells in-focus. Second, current analysis is labor-intensive with long turnaround time and user-to-user variability. Here we addressed the first challenge through developing a customized imaging system and data pre-processing algorithms. Utilizing cultured cancer and CAF cells captured by microfilters, we showed that images from our custom system are 99.3% in-focus compared to 89.9% from a top-of-the-line commercial scanner. Then we developed a deep-learning-based method to automatically identify tumor cells serving to mimic CTC (mCTC) and CAFs. Our deep learning method achieved precision and recall of 94% (± 0.2%) and 96% (± 0.2%) for mCTC detection, and 93% (± 1.7%) and 84% (± 3.1%) for CAF detection, significantly better than a conventional computer vision method, whose numbers are 92% (± 0.2%) and 78% (± 0.3%) for mCTC and 58% (± 3.9%) and 56% (± 3.5%) for CAF. Our custom imaging system combined with deep learning cell identification method represents an important advance on CTC and CAF analysis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5708
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


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