An experimental rice-sized implant monitors how drugs affect tumors

The device could help researchers study the effects of new treatments on some of the hardest-to-treat brain cancers.

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Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have developed an implant, notably as small as a grain of rice, that can test the effects of drugs on a patient’s brain tumor in real-time during surgery. Currently, monitoring the effects of drugs on a brain cancer patient during surgery is limited to intraoperative brain imaging and tissue sampling after a drug has been administered. The technique known as microdialysis currently stands as one of the more minimally invasive sampling options for testing the impact of drugs on brain tumors, but even that requires an entire catheter to be inserted into the patient’s skull cavity.

During development, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital designed the device specifically to help test treatments in patients with brain cancers or gliomas, a type of tumor that originates in the brain or spinal cord. The device is designed to only remain implanted in a patient for about two to three hours while it delivers microdoses of the respective drug that is under observation. It can observe the impact of up to 20 drugs on the market for cancerous tumors, according to the researchers. Once the device is removed (sometime before the surgery ends), the surrounding tissue is returned to the lab for analysis.

In a statement published Wednesday, Pierpaolo Peruzzi, co-principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital said that knowing the impact of cancer drugs on these tumors is critical. “We need to be able to understand, early on, which drug works best for any given patient,” he said.

 Brigham and Women’s Hospital building pictured
Brigham and Women’s Hospital building pictured (Brigham and Women’s Hospital)

During the development process, researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital ran a clinical trial to observe the actual impact of the implant on real patients. The study found that none of the patients in the trial experienced any adverse effects. The researchers were able to collect biological data from the devices, such as what molecular changes happened when each drug was administered. While the study demonstrated that the implant could be easily incorporated into surgical practice, the researchers are still determining how the data it can gather should be used to optimize tumor therapy.

The researchers are now conducting another study that focuses on implanting the device through a minimally invasive procedure 72 hours before their main surgery. Advancements in the cancer treatment space continue to expand, with new iterations of drug cocktails and viruses that can fight cancer cells emerging in the biotech space. Implants like the one developed by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital bring scientists one step closer to better being able to use tools and data to provide more personalized care treatment plans for cancer patients.