An implantable device, smaller than a rice grain, can shrink pancreatic tumours

Pancreatic cancer one of the most difficult to treat; device can deliver immunotherapy at low doses for a long time

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Monday 17 April 2023
The device consists of a stainless steel drug reservoir containing nanochannels, thus creating a membrane that allows for sustained diffusion when the drug is released. Photo: Houston Methodist__

A device smaller than a grain of rice might be able to help tame pancreatic cancer — one of the most aggressive and difficult-to-treat cancers. Nanomedicine researchers at Houston Methodist academic medical centre have come up with an implantable nanofluidic device that can directly deliver immunotherapy into the tumour.

In pancreatic cancer, malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the pancreas — the main organ responsible for regulating the blood sugar levels of an individual. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer usually shows little or no symptoms until it has advanced and spread.

The device was tested on murine animal models that allow the study of tumour biology, microenvironment and mechanisms of response to therapy. The result was tumour reduction at a fourfold lower dosage than traditional systemic immunotherapy treatment.

Corrine Ying Xuan Chua, PhD, co-corresponding author and assistant professor of nanomedicine at Houston Methodist Academic Institute said

One of the most exciting findings was that even though the NDES device was only inserted in one of two tumours in the same animal model, we noted shrinkage in the tumour without the device. 

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This means that local treatment with immunotherapy was able to activate the immune response to target other tumours, Chua said. In fact, one animal model remained tumour-free for the 100 days of continued observation

Most pancreatic cancer cases (up to 80 per cent) are diagnosed at later, more difficult-to-treat stages, according to health research institute Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Compared with many other cancers, the combined five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer — the percentage of all patients living five years after diagnosis — is very low at just 5 to 10 per cent. This is because far more people are diagnosed as stage IV when the disease has metastasised.

Houston Methodist Research Institute researchers used an implantable nanofluidic device they invented to deliver CD40 monoclonal antibodies (mAb), according to a new paper published in journal Advanced Science. 

CD40 is a promising immunotherapeutic agent, which was given at a sustained low dose via the device called the nanofluidic drug-eluting seed (NDES).

According to a press statement on Houston Methodist’s website, immunotherapy holds promise in treating cancers that previously did not have good treatment options. 

However, immunotherapy is delivered throughout the entire body and causes many side effects that are sometimes long-lasting, if not life-long. By focusing the delivery directly into the tumour, the body is protected from exposure to toxic drugs.

It has fewer side effects, essentially allowing patients undergoing treatment to have a better quality of life.

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“We see this device as a viable approach to penetrating the pancreatic tumour in a minimally invasive and effective manner, allowing for a more focused therapy using less medication,” said Alessandro Grattoni, PhD, co-corresponding author and chair of the Department of Nanomedicine at Houston Methodist Research Institute.

The NDES device consists of a stainless steel drug reservoir containing nanochannels, thus creating a membrane that allows for sustained diffusion when the drug is released.

Other medical technology companies offer intratumoral drug-eluting implants for cancer therapeutics, but those are intended for shorter-duration use. The Houston Methodist nanofluidic device is intended for long-term controlled and sustained release, avoiding repeated systemic treatment that often leads to adverse side effects.

Additional lab research is underway to determine the effectiveness and safety of this delivery technology, but researchers would like to see this become a viable option for cancer patients in the next five years.

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