Metastatic cancer, which spreads to other parts of the body, is attributed to over 90 percent of cancer deaths. Although doctors constantly check if a patient's cancer cells have not broken off from the original tumor and spread, cancer cells can be difficult to detect which makes this procedure inefficient.

A small and implantable sponge that can soak up cancer cells, however, could potentially change how doctors treat cancer patients and save lives. The device can function as an early warning system that can alert doctors if the cancer has spread.

In experiments involving mice, the implant also appeared to stop the rogue cancer cells from reaching other areas where new tumors could grow.

In the new study published in the journal Nature Communications on Sept. 8, Lonnie Shea, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan and colleagues tested the sponges on mice with breast cancer.

The sponges measure about 5mm in diameter and made of a biocompatible plastic known as PLGA, which is already approved for use in medical devices.

The researchers implanted the sponges in the abdomens of the mice as well as under their skin where cancer does not often spread.

After 28 days, the researchers removed the sponges and found that these contained cancer cells despite that they did not find cancer cells in the same tissues without the sponge. They also found that the device captured the cancer cells and reduced their numbers at other sites.

The researchers initially "labeled" the cancer cells so they would light up and get detected but they later on used a special imaging technique that can distinguish cancerous cells from normal cells.

The researchers said that the implant works by mimicking the process where cells that have broken loose from a tumor get attracted to other parts of the body by the immune cells.

The researchers said that the immune cells set up camp on the implant, a natural reaction in response to a foreign body, and this draws the cancer cells in.

Although the study was carried out in mice, Shea and colleagues consider the potentials of the device in scaling back the development of cancer in humans. The researchers said that they were planning to conduct the first clinical trials in humans soon.

"For patients at risk of recurrence, scaffold implantation following completion of primary therapy has the potential to identify metastatic disease at the earliest stage, enabling initiation of therapy while the disease burden is low," the researchers wrote

Photo: Ed Uthman | Flickr

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