Scientists from the University of Michigan (UM) have developed an implant that may one day act as an early warning system for metastatic tumors in lungs, liver, and brain caused by the spread of breast cancer. By implanting a small, biodegradable scaffold in the tissue of mice, researchers were able to detect the spread of cancer earlier and achieve better survival rates than in mice treated without the scaffold.
The device is roughly the size of a pencil eraser and is made from microporous poly-caprolactone — an FDA-approved material commonly found in wound dressings and sutures — and integrated with an inflammatory signal. When cancers metastasize, cancer cells take over the immune system and then work to spread tumor growth to other organs. By creating a more attractive environment than immune cells, the scaffold can divert some spreading cancer cells into a trap. While the device cannot capture all metastatic cells, researchers believe it could work to diagnose metastatic cancer at its earliest stages.
“We set out to create a sort of decoy — a device that’s more attractive to cancer cells than other parts of the patient’s body,” said Lonnie Shea, department chair of biomedical engineering at UM, when the technology was introduced last year. “It acts as a canary in the coal mine. And by attracting cancer cells, it steers those cells away from vital organs.”
In collaboration with Jacqueline Jeruss, a UM professor of surgical oncology, Shea published findings in Nature Communication demonstrating in vivo capture and detection of early metastatic cells in mouse models. In a recent follow-up study published in Cancer Research, UM researchers demonstrated that use of the scaffold in mice treated for primary cancer and at high-risk of developing metastatic cancer improved survival rates.
Mice implanted with the scaffold were examined five days after tumor initiation, and while researchers found cancerous cells in the device, tumors had not yet spread to other organs. After 15 days, there were 64 percent fewer cancerous cells in the liver and 75 percent fewer in the brains of mice implanted with the device than in mice that were not. Also, implanted mice alerted researchers to cancer spread, and with earlier surgical interventions, researchers were able to improve survival rates.
“Currently, early signs of metastasis can be difficult to detect,” said Jeruss in a press release. “Imaging may be done once a patient experiences symptoms, but that implies the burden of disease may already be substantial. Improved detection methods are needed to identify metastasis at a point when targeted treatments can have a significant beneficial impact on slowing disease progression.”
In the study, researchers used only surgical interventions, but Shea noted that precision cancer therapies currently in development could also be tested. The biodegradable implant can last up to two years and can be monitored regularly with non-invasive imaging techniques. By analyzing cancer cells in the device, clinicians would be able to choose the most appropriate therapy.
Currently, the UM team is designing a clinical study protocol that would use the scaffold to monitor for metastasis in patients treated for early stage breast cancer. Eventually, scientists speculated that the device could be useful in patients identified as “high risk” for developing breast cancer due to genetic susceptibility.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently launched a Cancer Moonshot Taskforce aimed at doubling the rate of progress in cancer research and treatment development.