Implantable cancer traps could replace biopsies for tumor detection
One of the main things that makes cancer so deadly is its ability to spread throughout the body, so it’s important for doctors to detect it before it does. Rather than the invasive process of taking biopsies of organs, researchers from the University of Michigan have developed “cancer traps” that can be implanted just below the skin. In tests on mice, these traps caught biomarkers that can tell doctors if cancer is present, if it’s spreading or even if it’s preparing to.
Biopsies – where a small sample of tissue is taken and analyzed – are an unpleasant but often necessary procedure for diagnosing cancer or tracking its progression. For the new study, the researchers found a way to bring the biomarkers closer to the surface, where it’s less invasive to reach them.
The team created synthetic biomaterial scaffolds that encourage tissue to grow there. Doctors can then take biopsies of these new growths to diagnose cancer or check whether an existing treatment plan is working.
“Biopsying an organ like the lung is a risky procedure that’s done only sparingly,” says Lonnie Shea, lead author of the study. “We place these scaffolds right under the skin, so they’re readily accessible.”
The scaffolds work by attracting immune cells to the site. Soon after, cancer cells – if they’re in the body – will also begin gathering there. But the team realized that they didn’t need to wait for the cancer cells to show up to diagnose the disease.
“When we started off, the idea was that we would biopsy the scaffold and look for tumor cells that had followed the immune cells there,” says Shea. “But we realized that by analyzing the immune cells that gather first, we can detect the cancer before it’s spreading.”
In tests on mice, the team conducted biopsies of the scaffolds and analyzed 635 genes in the cells they captured. They then identified 10 of these genes that acted as biomarkers, telling them whether a mouse did or didn’t have cancer, and if so, whether it had begun to spread or not. The technique worked with several different types of cancer, such as pancreatic cancer.
The team says that the device could also be used to monitor in real-time how well a patient is responding to treatment for cancer, which normally might require several biopsies over time. In other tests, the researchers say that by trapping cancer cells on their way to new sites, the devices have actually slowed down the growth of new metastatic tumors.
In the long run, the team says that these scaffolds could be made to monitor health electronically, over longer periods of time. With specialty sensors and Bluetooth, they could keep an eye out for cancer cells and alert patients and doctors when they detect something suspicious, without requiring a biopsy.
The research was published in the journal Cancer Research.
Source: University of Michigan