Breast cancer cell. Credit: LRI EM Unit
The small device can capture cancer cells that have moved away from the primary tumour and entered the bloodstream – a process called metastasis.
In studies in mice, the University of Michigan research team found that these spreading cells were detected before any other signs the disease had spread.
This could give doctors time to intervene with surgery or other therapies to halt the spread, according to the study published in the journal Cancer Research.
Professor Jacqueline S. Jeruss, director of the Breast Care Center at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in the US, said that the early signs of metastasis can be tricky to spot.
“Imaging may be done once a patient experiences symptoms, but that implies the burden of disease may already be substantial,” she said.
“Improved detection methods are needed to identify metastasis at a point when targeted treatments can have a significant beneficial impact on slowing disease progression.”
The device, which is biodegradable and could last up to two years, was implanted in mice with breast cancer. The tiny implant acts as a ‘scaffold’ and attracts immune cells, creating an environment that draws in spreading cancer cells.
The researchers also found that the device slowed breast cancer spread by preventing the cells from travelling to the liver and brain in mice, according to study author Lonnie D. Shea. They found that tumours formed from cells spreading to the liver and brain were 64 and 75 per cent smaller respectively with the implants.
Dr Zahid Latif, Cancer Research UK’s director of early detection, called the study “intriguing”, adding that this type of device could one day help doctors spot cancer spread early “by detecting tumour cells circulating in the blood stream”.
“This could open up new ways to treat patients,” he added.
“But since this study was done in mice, we’ll have to wait for further research to see if it could help patients in the same way.”
- Rao, S., et al. (2016). Enhanced Survival with Implantable Scaffolds That Capture Metastatic Breast Cancer Cells In Vivo. Cancer Research. 76 (18), 5209-5218. DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-15-2106