Prof Lonnie Shea, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan and his team have designed a small sponge-like implant that has the ability to mop up cancer cells as they move through the body. This device has been tested in mice, but there is hope that the device could act as an early warning system in patients, alerting doctors to cancer spread. The sponge-like implant also seemed to stop rogue cancer cells from reaching other areas where they could establish the growth of new tumors. Shea and others published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
According to Cancer Research UK, nine in 10 cancer deaths are caused by the disease-spreading to other areas of the body. Stopping the spread of cancer cells, or metastasis, is one of the ways to prevent cancers from becoming worse. Complicating this venture is the fact that cancer cells that circulate in the bloodstream are rare and difficult to detect.
Shea’s device is about 5mm or 0.2 inches in diameter and made of a “biomaterial” already approved for use in medical devices. So far, this implant has so far been tested in mice with breast cancer. Implantation experiments showed that it can be placed either in the abdominal fat or under the skin and that it tended to suck up cancer cells that had started to circulate in the body.
The implant mimicked a process known as chemoattraction in which cells that have broken free from a tumor are attracted to other areas in the body by immune cells. Shea and others found that these immune cells are drawn to the implant where they “set up shop.” This is actually a natural reaction to any foreign body, and the presence of the immune cells also attracts the cancer cells to the implant.
Initially, Shea and others labeled cancer cells with fluorescent proteins that caused them to glow under certain lights, which allowed them to be easily spotted. However, they eventually went on to use a special imaging technique that can distinguish between cancerous and normal cells. They discovered that they could definitively detect cancer cells that had been caught within the implant.
Unexpectedly, when they measured cancer cells that had spread in mice with and without the implant, they showed that the implant not only captured circulating cancer cells, but it also reduced the numbers of cancer cells present at other sites in the body.
Shea, said that he and his team were planning the first clinical trials in humans fairly soon: “We need to see if metastatic cells will show up in the implant in humans like they did in the mice, and if it’s a safe procedure and that we can use the same imaging to detect cancer cells.”
Shea and his coworkers are continuing their work in animals to determine what the outcomes if the spread of the cancer spread was detected at a very early stage, which is something that is presently not yet fully understood.
Lucy Holmes, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager, said: “We urgently need new ways to stop cancer in its tracks. So far this implant approach has only been tested in mice, but it’s encouraging to see these results, which could one day play a role in stopping cancer spread in patients.”