Detecting cancer at its early stages remains a major challenge in oncology. Even monitoring the progression of cancer is difficult, but researchers at the University of Michigan have come up with a tiny implantable device that can draw cancer cells toward itself for gene expression analysis.
The microscopic device is a biomaterial scaffold that is designed to allow new cells to settle within. Circulating tumor cells, being the most opportunistic at finding fresh nooks to make home, are quickly captured by the scaffold device.
Such implants can be positioned just under the skin in a simple procedure, and the presence of even remote cancers, such as those of the lungs, may be detected by biopsying the implant rather than lung tissue.
So far, these devices have been tried in lab mice with cancer, and the U of M researchers were able to analyze the expression of 635 genes within cells captured using the implants. This analysis was enough to effectively diagnose the mice and predict the course of their disease progression.
What’s important to note is that this technique is different from a liquid biopsy in which circulating tumor cells are captured within whole blood. The researchers found that the cells they captured had a different genetic profile from those obtained through a liquid biopsy. This points to the new technique having uniquely useful diagnostic applications.
The implantable scaffolds seem to attract immune cells first, with tumor cells following, and it may even be possible to detect cancer without capturing cancer cells at all.
“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,” Shea said. “But we realized that by analyzing the immune cells that gather first, we can detect the cancer before it’s spreading.”
Moreover, since the devices capture circulating tumor cells, those cancer spreading cells are not given a chance to start up new metastasis sites elsewhere. This was already shown in a study on mice with breast cancer tumors. So the new implants are not only diagnostic in nature, but may also be used to slow down the spread of cancer.
Image credit: Steve Alvey, Michigan Engineering