A small, implantable device, dubbed the "super-attractor," attracts detectable numbers of cancer cells in mice before they're visible anywhere else, according to a new study in Nature Communications. The sponge-like device could eventually be used to give doctors earlier warnings of relapse in breast cancer patients.

The super-attractor, developed at the University of Michigan, is made up of FDA-approved material that dissolves in the body over time. In mice, the device was just millimeters in diameter. In people, the super-attractor would probably be about the size of a pencil eraser.

The device works by mimicking the body's natural response to cancer cells. When cancer develops in the body, it causes the patients' immune cells to gather in specific organs in preparation for the arrival of more cancer cells. These immune cells attract additional cancer cells to that location. Essentially, the super-attractor acts as a beacon for the cancer cells.


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During the study, the researchers implanted the device just beneath the skin of mice. Reacting to the foreign object, the cancer-compromised immune systems of the mice sent out cells to attack the intruder. Then, cancer cells followed the immune cells within the device, which had tiny pores designed for the cancer cells. "Cancer cells are placed into the mammary gland of the mouse, and a scaffold is also placed either into the abdominal cavity or subcutaneous space. We would retrieve the scaffold at later times and look for the presence of cancer cells. We would also compare the number of cancer cells in the lungs and liver for mice that received an implant and those that did not," Lonnie Shea, the William and Valerie Hall Department Chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, told ALN exclusively.

The researchers found that cancer cells spread to the lungs 88% more slowly in mice with the implants. "Cancer cells would be found in the implant, at much higher densities in the implant relative to solid organs such as lung and liver. Also the number of cancer cells in the solid organs was reduced in mice that had an implant. Furthermore, looking at relatively early time points, we found cancer cells in the implant but not in the lung or liver. The scaffold may be able to serve as the canary in the coal mine to identify the early stages of metastatic disease," Shea continued.

The technology behind this device could potentially be used to treat other types of cancer as well. "We believe this system has the potential to be used for early detection of metastatic disease, and patients could begin treatment for metastatic disease at a time when they have only a few cancer cells in their body. We hypothesize that this early diagnosis may change outcomes - but that is the objective of ongoing studies," Shea concluded. "We are also extending our work with breast cancer models to other types of cancer. Finally, we are in the process of trying to set up a clinical trial and to raise the resources needed to sponsor the trial."