New “drug sponge” could reduce chemotherapy side effects

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Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have developed a polymer sponge that absorbs excess chemotherapy drugs from the bloodstream following treatment.

Nurse checking catheter delivering chemotherapy drugs to patient with cancer - a photo by stockfourstockfour | Shutterstock

The “drug sponge” could help prevent the dangerous side effects of toxic chemotherapy agents or even enable the delivery of higher doses to treatment-resistant tumors such as liver cancer.

The sponge is an absorbent polymer, not unlike the polymers used in fuel cells, that is adhered to a strutted 3-D printed cylinder. The cylinder can be fitted within a vein that carries blood out of a target organ – such as the liver in the case of liver cancer.

Once inside the vein, the sponge absorbs any drug not taken up by the tumor, potentially stopping it from reaching and poisoning other organs.

As reported in the journal ACS Central Science; early, in vivo testing in pigs showed that the drug sponge absorbed, on average, 64% of a liver cancer drug once it had been injected upstream.

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.”

Dr. Nitash Balsara, Lead Researcher

Co-author, Steven Hetts, says: "Because it is a temporary device, there is a lower bar in terms of approval by the FDA. I think this type of chemofilter is one of the shortest pathways to patients."

Hetts says the team is developing this technique around liver cancer due to the health threat this form of cancer represents. Tens of thousands of new cases are being diagnosed every year and liver cancer is already treated using intra-arterial chemotherapy.

But if you think about it, you could use this sort of approach for any tumor or any disease that is confined to an organ, and you want to absorb the drug on the venous side before it can distribute and cause side effects elsewhere in the body."

Steven Hetts, Co-author​

However, Hetts does not think extensive animal testing should be the next step, but rather obtaining conditional approval from the FDA.

“It is much more realistic to test these in people who have cancer as opposed to continuing to test in young pigs who have otherwise healthy livers," he concludes.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.

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