Experimental Drug Sponge May Reduce Toxicities Related to Cancer Treatment

A newly-developed biomedical device may help prevent chemotherapy from spreading away from the targeted tumor.

Chemical engineers from UC Berkley developed a novel “drug sponge” that could reduce toxicity from chemotherapy agents by absorbing the excess drug before it spreads to other parts of the body, according to a new study.

Despite advancements in the development of more targeted and personalized cancer therapies, chemotherapy dosing is often limited due to toxic adverse effects. Intra-arterial chemotherapy infusion delivers the drug directly to the target organ, but excess medication can still escape and spread to other parts of the body. According to the study, between 50% and 80% of the injected drug is not trapped in the target organ, subsequently bypassing the tumor and entering the body’s circulation.

The proposed sponge approach was tested with the liver cancer drug doxorubicin, but also could potentially be applied to other types of tumors and chemotherapy drugs. Serving as a chemofilter, the sponge is an absorbent polymer that coats a cylinder 3D printed to precisely fit a vein that carries the blood flowing out of the target organ.

“Surgeons snake the wire into the bloodstream and place the sponge like a stent, and just leave it in there for the amount of time you give chemotherapy, perhaps a few hours,” Nitash Balsara, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, said in a press release.

In the study, the researchers implanted the 3D-printed device into the vein of a pig and measured how much of the doxorubicin injected upstream remained downstream of the absorber. The study showed that in a healthy pig, approximately 64% of the excess drug was removed.

Balsara also described the concept of using an absorber to filter toxic chemo agents as similar to absorbers used in petroleum refining to remove unwanted chemicals. Additionally, Balsara noted the importance of customizing the device for individual patients.

“Fitting the cylinder in the vein is important; if the fit is poor, then the blood with the dissolved drug will flow past the cylinder without interacting with the absorbent,” Balsara said.

While the researchers are currently conducting experiments to determine how much drug is absorbed when the device is implemented in a healthy pig liver, they hope to eventually gain conditional approval from the FDA to do first-in-human studies.

“Although much work remains, we believe that the present study opens a new route to help patients fight cancer by minimizing drug toxicity, and better treat their disease and improve survival by enabling a high-dose regional chemotherapy,” the researchers concluded.


Oh HJ, Aboian MS, Yi MYJ. 3D printed absorber for capturing chemotherapy drugs before they spread through the body. ACS Central Science. 2018. Doi: 10.1021/acscentsci.8b00700

Drug sponge could minimize side effects of cancer treatment [news release]. UC Berkley’s website. https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/01/09/drug-sponge-could-minimize-side-effects-of-cancer-treatment/. Accessed January 9, 2019.

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