A small implant that traps travelling cancer cells as they spread through the body has been developed by researchers in the United States.
The 5mm long sponge-like device, which is made from an approved ‘biomaterial’ already used in a range of medical devices, could act as a lifesaving early-warning system in patients, alerting doctors to the spread of cancer cells.
Although to date, the implant has only been tested in mice with breast cancer, researchers say they are planning the first clinical trials in humans soon.
It is hoped that if the implant is used successfully in humans it could scan a patient’s bloodstream for signs of cancer to determine if cancer cells return following surgery or chemotherapy.
By implanting the device under the skin or inside abdominal fat, experiments showed how the implant absorbed cancerous cells that had begun to spread around the body.
The implant mimicked a process whereby cells that had separated from a tumour were drawn to other areas of the body by immune cells. The immune response is how our natural defences react to bacteria, viruses and foreign bodies. In this case, the immune cells massed around the implant.
At first, researchers marked cancerous cells so they could be easily identified. But, when they used an imaging technique known as ‘optical coherence tomography’ to differentiate between cancerous and normal cells, they discovered they could detect cancer cells that had been trapped in the implant.
The implant also appeared to prevent rogue cancer cells metastasising or spreading to other areas of the body where new tumours could grow. The ability to prevent cancer cells from spreading is crucial as the majority of cancer deaths occur when tumours develop in multiple parts of the body.
Cancer Research UK says nine in every 10 cancer deaths are caused by metastasis – the development of secondary malignant growths away from the initial site of cancer.
Scientists have for some time been exploring ways to detect the spread of tumour cells at an early stage. But unfortunately cancer cells that circulate in the bloodstream are extremely difficult to detect and treat. At present, metastases are often detected once cancer cells start affecting the way our organs work, limiting effective treatment.
The study’s lead author, Professor Lonnie Shea of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, said, "We need to see if metastatic cells will show up in the implant in humans like they did in the mice, and also if it's a safe procedure and that we can use the same imaging to detect cancer cells."
Although this implant has only been tested in mice, the results are certainly encouraging. As we know, the earlier cancer is spotted and correctly diagnosed the better the outcome of any subsequent treatment. As such, any research into a method designed for the early detection of metastasis is extremely welcome.
Cancer develops through numerous stages and so when opportunities for diagnosing the disease are missed or delayed, the condition can obviously develop to a more critical stage. The effects of such errors can be extremely serious.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to Medical Negligence. For a free consultation call our Medical Negligence Solicitors on freephone 0800 916 9049 or start your claim online.