Tumor-Monitoring Implant Could Give Advance Warning of Growth

By Veronique Greenwood | September 12, 2011 1:01 pm

The blood oxygen-monitoring chip, which is about 2 cm long and encased in plastic, is still in the
early stages of testing.

What’s the News: Scientists in Germany are developing a chip that keeps track of blood oxygen levels for implanting near tumors, reports Kate Baggot at Technology Review. When blood oxygen levels drop, signalling a burst of tumor growth, doctors would be alerted immediately, jump-starting the treatment process.

How the Heck:

  • The chip, called the IntelliTuM, contains a sensor, electronics for measurements, and a transmitter that will send status updates to a receiver carried by the patient and thence to the doctor, reports Technology Review.
  • Right now, the chip senses the levels of dissolved oxygen in its immediate area, which, if it’s near a tumor, can change as the tumor transitions into a more aggressive mode. But the team has also been able to change the sensor remotely to detect pH instead, so there is some flexibility in the kinds of markers it can detect. All tests, so far, have been in tissue culture, not in animals.
  • The team envisions the device being useful in monitoring slow-growing or inoperable tumors in areas like the brain or the liver, though, as detailed below, there are some difficulties with this set of applications.

What’s the Context:

  • Medical implants that report to doctors are an established field: Smart pacemakers and blood glucose monitors, for example, respond to directives from doctors and send wireless updates on patient condition.
  • Right now, tumors are monitored with an array of external scans, like CT scans or MRI, and getting scanned frequently is not without its own health dangers, since CT scans mean exposure to radioactivity. Internal monitoring could be an appealing alternative.

Not So Fast:

  • This device is still very early in its development, and difficulties in cost, effectiveness, and toxicity could scuttle it at any point. Right now it’s only been tested in lab-grown tissue; animal tests are next.
  • Also, the potential pool of takers for this device could be smaller than the team anticipates. “Most folks who are not good candidates for [tumor removal] surgery will not want surgery to implant this so that they can be monitored,” a neurosurgeon who was not involved in the research told Technology Review. But he suggests that it could be useful to people with tumors that were only partially removed by surgery who are watching for recurrence or metastasis.
  • For that set of people, the extra notice of a recurring cancer could be life-saving, if the device ever makes it to market. And beyond that, the team is pondering the possibility of using the monitor to deliver targeted chemotherapy as well, when a tumor shows signs of growing.

[via Technology Review]

Image courtesy of Technical University of Munich



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