University researchers published a study last week that could lead to a lower mortality rate for breast cancer patients. 

Lonnie Shea, professor of biomedical engineering and chemical engineering, and Jacqueline Jeruss, associate professor of surgery, developed a device to attract and capture cancer cells. The aim: improve early detection of breast cancer that spread to other organs — such as lungs, liver, brain and bones — and form tumors, which is called metastasic breast cancer. This can subsequently cause organ failure.

The study, published in Nature Communications, reports the device can not only aid early diagnosis, but also prevent breast cancer’s further spread.

Shea said metastasis is often discovered when the tumor has already spread to other organs and the organs’ functions are impaired.

“Unfortunately, the available therapies are not very effective at that point,” Shea said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the second most common cancer for women in the United States, and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women. There are about 230,000 new cases in women and 2,300 cases in men each year.

The porous, sponge-like device described in the study is small and can be implanted in the patient’s body. It acts as a “scaffold” by trapping metastatic cancer cells from the patient’s bloodstream during the early stages of cancer.

Jeruss said the device could be extremely useful because it would serve as an early warning system for metastasis. Once the cancer is detected, early chemotherapy could prevent the spread of cancer to other organs.

“We may be able to preserve the integrity of the organs and ensure longer survival,” Jeruss said.

In addition to detecting metastatic breast cancer, the device can prevent its spread. When tested in mice, 88 percent fewer cancer cells spread to the lungs of animals with the scaffold as compared to those without. Jeruss said this ability to offset cancer spread came as a surprise.

“The original intent of the work was to examine an intervention that could be used for early detection,” Jeruss said. “But we then came to find that we were able to offset the advancement in metastasis with the device. That was a striking finding for us.”

Jeruss said the device will next need to be tested in human breast cancer patients through a clinical trial. She added that the device may be useful for former breast cancer patients who need to watch for a recurrence, or for high-risk healthy patients.

So far, the device has only been tested for breast cancer cells. Jeruss said researchers are examining the device’s potential usefulness in treating other cancers, including ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancer.

Shea said the device is not only useful for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, but also for uncovering how metastasis occurs.

“This device is useful for trying to understand the system,” Shea said. “We can design an implant and investigate the extent to which cancer cells are attracted, enabling us to identify the environment that leads to colonization of cancer cells.”

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