An implantable scaffold device may improve breast cancer survival by capturing metastatic cancer cells.

The scaffold developed at University of Michigan is made of U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved biodegradable material commonly used in sutures and wound dressings. Implanted under the skin and monitored with non-invasive imaging, the device can be removed upon signs of cancer cell colonization, at which point treatment could be administered.

 A small scaffold is designed to attract breast cancer cells. Source: University of Michigan School of Engineering A small scaffold is designed to attract breast cancer cells. Source: University of Michigan School of EngineeringThe scaffold is designed to mimic the environment in other organs before cancer cells migrate there. It attracts the body’s immune cells, which draw in the cancer cells. This then limits the immune cells from heading to the lung, liver or brain, where breast cancer commonly spreads.

At day 5 after tumor initiation in mice, researchers documented 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, 64% fewer cancer cells were found in the liver, and 75% fewer cancer cells were measured in the brains of mice with scaffolds compared to 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, which is 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. While surgery was the primary intervention in this study, the researchers suggest that additional medical treatments might also be tested as early interventions.

In addition, 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.

A clinical trial protocol will be developed using the scaffold to monitor for metastasis in patients treated for early stage breast cancer. In time, 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.

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