A sample of a polymer-based membrane material created at Berkeley Lab. It’s designed to soak up cancer drugs and limit their side effects. | Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab.

Doctors today have a powerful arsenal of cancer-fighting chemotherapy drugs to choose from, but a key challenge remains: to better target these drugs. The hope is to kill tumors while limiting a drug’s potentially harmful side effects, and researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory may have a found a way. 

The scientists at Berkeley Lab are helping to develop and test materials for a new device that can be inserted into a vein through a tiny tube and soak up most of chemotherapy drugs like a sponge. The material is designed to bind the drug, based on its electric charge, after the drug targets tumors and before it circulates throughout the body. This would happen after a separate tube delivers a more concentrated dose to tumors--and before the drugs can widely circulate in the bloodstream.

From Fuel Cell to Cancer Treatment

The Berkeley Lab project is the responsibility of X. Chelsea Chen, a postdoctoral researcher working in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division. Chen had been investigating polymer materials used in fuel cell technology when she learned about the drug-capture system.

She saw that the proposed device could benefit from the property in the fuel cell materials which allows them to attract and capture certain molecules, while allowing other types of molecules to flow through.

This is important, since an increasingly popular liver-cancer treatment, known as TACE, can allow up to half of the chemotherapy dose to reach the rest of the body, with negative side effects. “In our lab experiments, the current design can absorb 90 percent of the drug in 25-30 minutes,” Chen said. 

Removing a toxin after tumor treatment

Steven Hetts, an associate professor of radiology at UC San Francisco and an interventional neuroradiologist at the UCSF Medical Center, conceived of the new treatment system that Chen works on, called ChemoFilter.

Hetts specializes in treating eye tumors by pumping chemotherapy medication to the tumor through a catheter, or tube, which is navigated via a pathway of arteries beginning in the thigh.

“You can get very high concentrations of that chemotherapy in the eye and relatively low concentrations in the rest of the body, but some will wash through the eye and into the veins in the head,” Hetts said. “It occurred to me that maybe we could navigate a separate catheter into the vein that drains the blood, and have a material that binds up any excess chemotherapy.”

While the eye cancers he treats are rare, he saw a need to improve treatment options for liver cancer, which is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths globally, with an estimated half a million new cases each year.

Hetts enlisted Berkeley Lab, and Chen began to work on materials based on Hetts’ concept. The research team received a patent for a ChemoFilter system in April, which could find use in human cancer treatment within a couple of years.

Next-gen drug-capture devices

But the work isn’t over. Chen continues her work at DOE facilities, from Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry to its Advanced Light Source and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. These facilities allow her to develop new materials and better understand the drug-capture mechanism at microscopic scales and inform new designs.“Without these awesome images from the Foundry and ALS, we wouldn’t know how to optimize the performance of the materials,” Chen said.

Hetts said he looks forward to the development of more “cutting-edge” versions of ChemoFilter devices that are tailored to a wide range of treatments.
“This project has moved forward nicely and I’m really impressed,” he said. “It’s been a great experience in coming together to create these devices, and I’m looking forward to continuing it.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was originally published by Berkeley Lab, one of the Department of Energy’s 17 National Laboratories. This work is supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institutes of Health.

Glenn Roberts Jr.
Glenn Roberts Jr. is a science writer at Berkeley Lab, one of the Department of Energy's 17 National Laboratories. Glenn Roberts Jr. is a science writer at Berkeley Lab, one of the Department of Energy's 17 National Laboratories.
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