Minimising the side effects of chemotherapy
Cancer patients could soon find their treatment less gruelling thanks to a device which scientists hope will curb the harmful effects of chemotherapy. Researchers from a group of US universities have developed a tiny sponge that would sit in a patient’s vein and soak up excess drugs before they could damage healthy cells.
Chemotherapy drugs are highly poisonous – that’s how they kill cancer cells. The trouble is they poison healthy cells too, causing horrendous side effects ranging from vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea to suppression of the immune system, hair loss and ulcers.
Doctors have to walk a fine line between administering enough drugs to kill or shrink the cancer, but not so many that the patient’s other organs are irreparably damaged.
Adding the sponge
In rudimentary tests on pigs, the scientists found that the sponge could absorb almost two thirds of a liver cancer drug called doxorubicin – greatly lessening its potential to do damage elsewhere.
The researchers – from the University of California Berkeley, the University of California San Francisco and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill – published their results in a paper in the journal ACS Central Science, an open-access publication of the American Chemical Society, last week.
The sponge is actually an absorbent polymer that coats a cylinder 3D-printed to fit in a vein coming out of the organ where the tumour is.When a patient is about to have chemotherapy, the doctor would insert the sponge, then inject the drugs into an artery serving the organ. The sponge could then collect whatever drugs the organ did not absorb. The doctor would remove the sponge, and thereby the surplus drugs, right after treatment.
The cylinder would have to fit the patient’s vein very precisely, so that blood cannot get past without coming into contact with the absorber.
Nitash Balsara, professor of chemical and bio-molecular engineering at the University of California Berkeley, and one of the researchers, explained: “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.”
Steven Hetts, another of the researchers, is a radiologist at the University of California San Francisco and head of interventional neuroradiology at the university’s Mission Bay Hospitals.
Currently, he treats tumours of the eye and brain by threading catheters through the bloodstream to deliver chemotherapy directly to the site of the tumour – delivering as much of the drug as possible to the tumour, and as little as possible to the rest of the body. It is a vast improvement over injecting the drugs straight into the bloodstream, but on average more than half the dose still ends up in places other than the target organ.In comparison, the sponge absorbed an average of 64 per cent of the doxorubicin injected into the pigs’ bloodstream.
So far, it has only been tested in the bloodstream of healthy pigs. The next step is to test it specifically in the pigs’ hepatic veins, as it is being developed initially as a treatment for liver cancer, and then in humans – which Hetts hopes could be in a couple of years.
In theory, it could also allow doctors to administer higher doses of drugs, or be used to sop up other dangerous drugs, such as strong antibiotics that are toxic to the kidneys.
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