A small scaffold implanted in the body could help corral the spread of metastatic breast cancer, according to researchers at the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. The device and its mode of action are simple: It’s designed to mimic the environment in organs before cancer cells migrate there. The scaffold attracts the body’s immune cells, and the immune cells draw in the cancer cells. This then limits the immune cells from heading to the lung, liver or brain, where breast cancer commonly spreads.
The material, commonly used in sutures and wound dressings, is implanted below the skin surface and is designed to last no more than 2 years before it absorbs into the body. Essentially it catches cancer cells, slowing the development of metastatic tumors in other organs and allowing time to intervene with surgery or other therapies.
The researchers have done various studies in mice showing that an implantable scaffold effectively captures the cancer cells. For the purposes of this study, researchers sought to improve the device and show that surgery before to the first signs of metastatic cancer improved survival.
Initially, the group based its research on polylactide-co-glycolide (PLG) biomaterial scaffolds. They found, however, that PLG degraded too quickly for clinical translation. The team then developed a microporous poly-e-caprolactone (PCL) scaffold. The material is FDA-approved, with greater stability to enable the team to investigate the immune response and cellular events.
At 5 days after tumor initiation, the researchers found a detectable percentage of tumor cells within the scaffold but none in the lung, liver, or brain, suggesting that the cancer cells hit the scaffold first. At 15 days after tumor initiation, researchers reported finding 64 percent fewer cancer cells in the liver and 75 percent fewer cancer cells in the brains of mice with scaffolds compared with mice without scaffolds. This suggests that the presence of the scaffold slows the progress of metastatic disease.
The researchers removed the tumors at day 10, after detection but before substantial spreading, and found the mice that had the scaffold in place survived longer than mice that did not have a scaffold.
In addition to slowing cancer spread, the researchers hope that by removing the scaffold and examining the cancer cells within it, they can use precision medicine techniques to target the treatment most likely to have an impact.
The researchers emphasize that the scaffold is not a cure for cancer; rather, it’s a tool for early detection and treatment. The next steps for the team include developing a clinical trial protocol using the scaffold to monitor for metastasis in patients treated for early stage breast cancer.
Eventually, the researchers hope it could also be used to monitor for breast cancer in people who are at high risk due to genetic susceptibility. They are also testing the device in other types of cancer.