Tiny implanted sentinels detect early metastatic breast cancer

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published September 30, 2016

Key Takeaways

Implanted micro-“scaffolds” can capture early metastatic breast cancer cells and thereby serve as sentinels for detecting early progression, according to a study in Cancer Research. The scaffolds also slow metastasis to other organs and improve survival, researchers reported.

“Currently, early signs of metastasis can be difficult to detect. Imaging may be done once a patient experiences symptoms, but that implies the burden of disease may already be substantial,” said study author Jacqueline S. Jeruss, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering and Director of the Breast Care Center at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, in Ann Arbor, MI.

“Improved detection methods are needed to identify metastasis at a point when targeted treatments can have a significant beneficial impact on slowing disease progression,” Dr. Jeruss added.

In this study, the researchers developed a biomaterial scaffold made of microporous poly(Ε-caprolactone), an FDA approved material used in sutures and wound dressings that can last up to two years. After subcutaneously implanting the scaffolds in mice, the local immune response reacted to the scaffolds—but also attracted metastatic breast cancer cells.

Using label-free imaging, the researchers detected the metastatic cells in the scaffolds at a nascent stage, prior to the spread of cancer cells to other organs such as the liver and brain. Next, the researchers surgically removed the primary tumors in the mice, which significantly improved disease-specific survival.

“Early detection of a primary tumor is generally associated with improved outcomes. But that's not necessarily been tested in metastatic cancer,” said study author Lonnie D. Shea, PhD, William and Valerie Hall Chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan. “This study shows that in the metastatic setting, early detection combined with a therapeutic intervention can improve outcomes.”

This sentinel system is for early detection and treatment of metastatic breast cancer but is not a cure, the researchers cautioned. The scaffold won’t prevent metastatic disease or reverse disease progression for patients with established metastatic cancer.

Currently, the researchers are planning a clinical trial of the scaffold to monitor for metastasis in patients treated for early stage breast cancer. They hope that one day the device will be used as an early warning system for people who are at high risk of breast cancer due to genetic susceptibility. The researchers are also testing the device in other types of cancer.

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