Experts are working together to improve the cancer treatment process, applying the method used in petroleum refining to soak up the side effects.

One of the worst things about chemotherapy is the impact it has on the rest of your body, once the aggressive drugs have attacked the cancer cells. But now there’s a potential new breakthrough designed to limit that impact, and it’s based on the idea of a roadblock, fuel cell or colander… depending who you ask.

The cancer breakthrough in question is a 3D-printed sponge or filter, which is designed to sit in the veins surrounding a tumour in order to “soak up” the harmful chemo drugs before they get out and do damage to healthy tissue. This means a reduction – or, in a best-case scenario, elimination – of the side effects of chemotherapy, such as vomiting, hair loss and even heart failure.

Repurposing chemistry concepts

Tubular in shape, the device absorbs the chemotherapy drug thanks to a special ionic polymer coating, while allowing “clean” blood through and into the body. It’s the brainchild of interventional neuroradiologist Dr Steven Hetts of the University of California, San Francisco, who has been working on improving the chemotherapy process for years, in a variety of ways. He reached out to a range of experts, who worked together to hone his ideas.

“An absorber is a standard chemical engineering concept,” explains chemical engineer Professor Nitash Balsara, who led the team developing this new device. “Absorbers are used in petroleum refining to remove unwanted chemicals such as sulphur. Literally, we’ve taken the concept out of petroleum refining and applied it to chemotherapy.”

Soaking it up

So far the sponges have been trialled in pigs, with promising results. In the latest trial, the sponges captured 64% of a common liver cancer drug, doxorubicin, without causing blod clots or related issues. Additionally, the drugs are retained in the device, which means they don’t leak out when removed.

The plan is to start trials in humans within the next few years, assuming all goes well from here. And because the sponges are 3D printed, they can be tailored to individuals – which is important because fresh devices would be inserted before chemo, and removed afterwards. “Surgeons snake a wire into the bloodstream and place the sponge like a stent, and just leave it in for the amount of time you give chemotherapy, perhaps a few hours,” says Balsara. “Fitting the cylinder in the vein is important; if the fit is poor, then the blood with the dissolved drug will flow past the cylinder without interacting with the absorbent.”