Bioethics Blogs

Cancer Metastasis: Trying to Catch the Culprits Earlier

Caption: Scaffold of a cancer cell-attracting implant as seen by scanning electron microscopy.
Credit: Laboratory of Lonnie Shea

For many people diagnosed with cancer localized to the breast, prostate, or another organ, the outlook after treatment is really quite good. Still, most require follow-up testing because there remains a risk of the cancer recurring, particularly in the first five years after a tumor is removed. Catching recurrence at an early, treatable stage can be difficult because even a small number of new or “leftover” tumor cells have the ability to enter the bloodstream or lymphatics and silently spread from the original tumor site and into the lung, brain, liver, and other vital organs—the dangerous process of metastasis. What if there was a way to sound the alarm much earlier—to detect tumor cells just as they are starting to spread?

Reporting in Nature Communications [1], an NIH-funded research team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, has developed an experimental device that appears to fit the bill. When these tiny, biodegradable scaffolds were implanted in mice with a highly metastatic form of breast cancer, the devices attracted and captured migrating cancer cells, making rapid detection possible via a special imaging system. If the results are reproduced in additional tests in animals and humans, such devices might enable earlier identification—and thereby treatment—of one of the biggest challenges in oncology today: metastatic cancer.

Much work has already been done to explore the potential of microfluidic [2] and nanotechnology [3] methods for screening blood for rare circulating tumor cells (CTCs) capable of metastasis.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.