Breast cancer is only deadly in its stage IV metastatic form, but thousands of people still die from the disease each year. However, that number may soon plummet thanks to a new invention built for the 95 percent of cancer cases that are treated with surgery.
The product the UCLA-led research team developed is a sprayable gel, meant to be used by surgeons during procedures such as lumpectomies and mastectomies. The spray quickly forms a biodegradable gel that boosts the patient’s immune system, helping him or her heal from the procedure faster. Then the immune-boosting properties of the gel help the body defeat any remaining cancer cells and keep the cancer from returning.
“This sprayable gel shows promise against one of the greatest obstacles in curing cancer,” said study leader Zhen Gu, a professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “One of the trademarks of cancers is that it spreads. In fact, around 90 percent of people with cancerous tumors end up dying because of tumor recurrence or metastasis. Being able to develop something that helps lower this risk for this to occur and has low toxicity is especially gratifying.”
Calcium carbonate nanoparticles in the gel are specifically targeted against a protein called CD47 that cancer cells release to send a “don’t eat me” signal to the immune system. Blocking this protein allows the body to find and destroy stubborn cancer cells, and the gel also activates T cells and a type of macrophage that rids the body of foreign objects. The calcium carbonate later dissolves in the body.
Animal testing leads scientists to believe this product could cut cases of cancer recurrence down to half of their current numbers, perhaps even more than that for metastatic recurrence cases. And for those whose cancer will still recur, the gel may stave off the disease for as long as five years, giving cancer victims more time to be diagnosed and treated again. Even those who will die of cancer despite the treatment are likely to have more valuable time with their families than they would have otherwise.
In mice with advanced melanoma, 50 percent of those treated with the sprayable gel lived for at least 60 days after their surgeries without the remaining cancer growing or spreading, and the gel also proved effective in controlling growth of tumors in other areas of the body.
Further testing and human clinical trials will be needed before the gel can be used in mainstream surgical procedures, but researchers are hopeful that their invention will make it that far. If it does, it could save many thousands of lives per year.
The peer-reviewed results of the study were published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?