UPDATED: Nanobump-coated breast implants repel cancer cells

Biomedical scientists at Brown University engineered a first-of-its-kind breast implant topped with nano-sized polymer "pimples" designed to discourage cancer cells from returning. Initial tests in the lab showed promise for the design, envisioned by researchers for breast construction procedures following cancer surgery to remove a tumor.

Such an implant, if it can be successfully developed for human use, could help women reduce the risk of their breast cancer returning without using chemotherapy, radiation or other more drastic treatments, Brown associate professor of engineering Thomas Webster said in a release announcing the study results. (He's corresponding author of a paper on the team's research, based on research in his lab and published in the journal Nanotechnology.)

"It's a surface that's hospitable to healthy breast cells and less so for cancerous breast cells," Webster added.

This is early-stage research, of course, years from development for surgical use. But such an implant would be quite innovative, blending nanotechnology with conventional implants to fight the return of cancer cells without the return of drugs. It's definitely worth keeping track of as the research progresses. Webster, meanwhile, tells FierceMedicalDevices in an email response that the research team is "eagerly looking for an industry collaborator for the anti-cancer nanotechnology materials."  He adds that the concept may also work for lung and bone cancer.

Webster's team used 23-nanometer-diameter polystyrene beads and polylactic-co-glycololic acid (PLGA) to create a cast on a glass plate. What they ended up with: An implant with 23-nanometer high pimples on the surface, which Webster termed "a bed of nails" designed to attract healthy cells but also push away any remaining breast-cancer cells. Subsequent lab tests demonstrated a 15% drop in the production of the VEGF protein, compared to an implant surface without the added nano-pimples, according to the university. This is significant, because VEGF proteins help fuel endothelial breast-cancer cells. What's more, the 23-nanometer surface also worked better versus implants with 300-and 400-nanometer surfaces that the team created for comparison.

It's important in science to admit what you don't know, and the Brown team acknowledges it isn't sure why the 23-nanometer surface worked best. One theory: Malignant breast cells may be too stiff to fully attach to the bumpy surface and feed on the VEGF protein. Next on the researchers' plate: figuring out why surfaces covered with the nano-material repel malignant cancer cells.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Brown professor Thomas Webster in the fourth paragraph.

- here's the release
- read the journal abstract