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Device Detects Breast Cancer Recurrence, Spread

Breast self exam

(National Cancer Institute)

11 September 2015. A research team led by medical and engineering faculty at University of Michigan designed an implanted device that could detect the recurrence and early spread of breast cancer. Results of a proof-of-concept study testing the device in lab mice appears this week in the journal Nature Communications (paid subscription required).

The team led by professor of surgery Jacqueline Jeruss and biomedical engineering professor Lonnie Shea — with colleagues from Northwestern University, University of South Carolina, and MD Anderson Cancer Center — are seeking a technique for spotting cases of relapse in people with breast cancer much earlier than current methods, to prevent the cancer from spreading. “Breast cancer is a disease that can recur over a long period in a patient’s life,” says Jeruss in a university statement, “and a recurrence is often very difficult to detect until the cancer becomes established in another organ.”

The team’s solution is a tiny sponge-like device made of a common biocompatible and degradable polymer used in surgical sutures. Once implanted under the skin, the immune system reacts to the sponge as an invading pathogen sending immune system cells to the site of the implant, where they collect in the pores of the device.

Tumor cells suppress the actions of and are attracted to immune system cells. The researchers hypothesized that the collection of immune system cells in the device would be highly attractive to circulating tumor cells in the bloodstream, even more than normal immune system cells, and thus would serve as a magnet for cancer cells.

In their study, the researchers implanted the sponges under the skins of lab mice induced with breast cancer, leaving a comparable group of mice without the devices. After about a month, the devices were retrieved from the mice, and analyzed with inverse spectroscopic optical coherence tomography, a scanning technique that identifies changes in tissue when in the presence of tumor cells.

The team found circulating cancer and immune-system suppressing cells collected in the sponge, attracted to the device by the immune system cells. What’s more, the collected cancer cells did not form into a tumor, and may have prevented spread of the cancer to other organs. Test results show a much higher proportion of mice without the device were found with cancer spread to their lungs.

“We were frankly surprised to see that cancer cells appeared to stop growing when they reached the implant,” says Shea. “We saw individual cells in the implant, not a mass of cells as you would see in a tumor, and we didn’t see any evidence of damage to surrounding tissue.”

In the mice, the device was only a few millimeters in diameter, but scaled up to human size would be about the size of a pencil eraser. The researchers believe the device could be implanted in people with breast cancer to detect recurrence or spread much sooner than is now possible, or even as a preventive measure for people at high risk of the disease. The device could also be adapted for other solid-tumor cancers, such as prostate or pancreatic cancer.

University of Michigan is seeking patent protection for the discovery and partners to take the technology to market.

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