Drug sponge developed to soak away chemo side effects

‘Chemofilter' device can potentially improve the safety and effectiveness of cancer chemotherapy treatment, researchers claim.

A biomedical “sponge” that mops up the leftovers from cancer treatment could boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy, scientists claim.

The “drug sponge” is a cylinder coated with an absorbent polymer that is inserted into a vein carrying blood away from a cancer-ridden organ.

By removing drugs not taken up by the tumour, it stops excess chemo agent passing through the circulation to other parts of the body.

The process in diagram form
Scientists in the US developed a ‘drug sponge’ (Hee Jeung Oh/PA)

In early tests on pigs the “chemofilter” soaked up 64% of a liver cancer drug, doxorubicin, injected upstream.

Doctors hope the device will help them avoid dangerous side effects of chemotherapy and deliver higher doses of drugs safely.

Professor Nitash Balsara, a member of the research team from the University of California at Berkeley, said: “An absorber is a standard chemical engineering concept. Absorbers are used in petroleum refining to remove unwanted chemicals such as sulphur.

“Literally, we’ve taken the concept out of petroleum refining and applied it to chemotherapy.”

While the scientists have focused on liver cancer, they say the technique could be used whenever a tumour is confined to an organ.

Chemotherapy is typically accompanied by major side effects including nausea, vomiting, hair loss,  suppression of the immune system, and anaemia.

The scientists spent more than a year perfecting a way to adhere the polymer to a 3D printed cylinder that could be placed inside a vein.


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

In practice the device would probably have to be customised for individual patients, he added.

The research is reported in the journal ACS Central Science.

Drug sponges  could be applied to many types of tumour and chemotherapy drug, said the researchers.

Potentially they could also be used to soak up other dangerous drugs, such as high-powered antibiotics that are toxic to kidneys.

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