Researchers at Ann Arbor’s U-M Create Skin Implants that Attract Cancer Cells

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have created a device called a scaffold that is implanted just beneath the skin to attract cancer cells for study. The solution may replace invasive biopsy procedures and can pick up signs that cancer is preparing to spread before cancer cells arrive.
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cancer attracting scaffold
Researchers at U-M have invented an implant for just below that skin that attracts cancer cells to study. // Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have created a device called a scaffold that is implanted just beneath the skin to attract cancer cells for study. The solution may replace invasive biopsy procedures and can pick up signs that cancer is preparing to spread before cancer cells arrive.

“Biopsying an organ like the lung is a risky procedure that’s done only sparingly,” says Lonnie Shea, the William and Valerie Hall Chair of biomedical engineering at U-M. “We place these scaffolds right under the skin, so they’re readily accessible.”

The ease of access would allow doctors to monitor the effectiveness of cancer treatments closer to real time.

Researchers analyzed 635 genes present in the captured cancer cells of mice and identified 10 that could predict whether a mouse was healthy, if it had cancer that had not yet spread, or if a cancer was present and begun to spread.

The gene expression had patterns relative to cells from the blood, which were obtained through a technique known as a liquid biopsy. These differences highlight that the tissue in these traps provides unique information that correlates with disease progression. The scaffolds attract immune cells, which attract cancer cells.

“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 says. “But we realized that by analyzing the immune cells that gather first, we can detect the cancer before it’s spreading.”

The researchers have demonstrated the devices work with multiple types of cancer in mice, including pancreatic cancer.

“Currently, early signs of metastasis can be difficult to detect,” says Jacqueline Jeruss, associate professor of surgery and biomedical engineering and a co-author of the study. “Imaging may be done once a patient experiences symptoms, but that implies the number of cancer cells may already be substantial. Improved detection methods are needed to identify metastasis at a point when targeted treatments can have a significant beneficial impact on slowing disease progression.”

The immune cells allowed researchers to identify whether treatments were effective in the mice and find which subjects were sensitive or resistant to treatment. The device’s ability to draw immune and cancer cells can also bolster the treatment. Previous research showed the devices demonstrated an ability to slow the growth of metastatic breast cancer tumors in mice by reducing the number of cancer cells that can reach tumors.

Shea envisions that future scaffolds could have sensors and Bluetooth technology that could deliver information in real time.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health and appears in Cancer Research, a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research.

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