fauPretty much everyone I know, myself included, has lost someone to cancer, many of them far too young. Finding a cure for cancer is the lofty, ultimate goal for medical researchers, and people like to fantasize about the day when the headline suddenly appears in the paper: “Cure for Cancer Found!” No more deaths from the disease, no more painful, drawn-out treatments – just a shot or a pill that can eliminate cancer as easily as clearing up an ear infection.

In reality, will it happen like that? It probably won’t be that easy – cancer is a complicated beast, and there are so many different forms with their own unique complexities that a universal, one-off cure is a difficult proposition. However, a lot of promising recent developments do point to a near future in which treatment is much more effective and deaths much more rare. And a lot of those developments involve 3D printing.

ds00500_im03992_c7_esophagealstentthu_jpgNo cancer is pleasant, but some are much easier to treat than others. Certain types of cancers tend to come with a dire prognosis, and esophageal cancer is one of those. It’s the eighth most common type of cancer in the world, but it’s often detected late, and it’s very difficult to operate on; in fact, 50 to 60 percent of patients with the disease are ineligible for surgery. Those patients are often treated with the surgical implantation of a stent, which is made from a metal mesh and can cause numerous complications such as bleeding, perforation or tumor ingrowth.

It’s not a cure; it mostly serves to keep the esophagus open, but a new development from Florida Atlantic University could eliminate the risk of complications and actively treat the tumor as well. Dr. Yunqing (Kevin) Kang, assistant professor of biomaterials and regenerative medicine in FAU’s Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering, has recently received a $141,743 grant to further develop a biodegradable, 3D printed polymer stent that will not only avoid the complications of metal stents but also serve as a drug delivery system.

“Currently, there are no stents that are available in a clinical setting that have the ability of preventing or decreasing the complications, and at the same time providing the capability of delivering cancer therapy drugs,” said Dr. Kang. “Because our materials will be made from biodegradable polymer, they will dissolve and disappear after the stent is surgically placed into the patient’s esophagus. Once treatment is completed, it won’t be necessary for the surgeon to remove the stent, making the process and treatment much more comfortable for the patient.”

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Dr. Yunqing Kang. (Image: Florida Atlantic University)

The tissue-engineered stent will be designed to release paclitaxel, a commonly used anti-cancer drug that will locally attack the tumor. Dr. Kang and his team will use 3D printing to create the stent, which will be rigid enough to hold its shape but flexible enough to expand and contract along with the esophagus. Dr. Kang, who began working at FAU in 2014, has been studying tissue engineering and cancer drug delivery systems for his entire career. His work at the university has been focused on the development of biomaterials for bone tissue regeneration, as well as novel drug delivery systems.

Esophageal cancer cells (Reuters)

“Dr. Kang’s technology is a game changer for how esophageal cancer could be treated in the future,” said Mohammad Ilyas, PhD, Dean of FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. “The physiochemical, drug-release and biocompatibility properties of this stent could have a wider impact on the treatment of esophageal cancer and the need for tissue-engineered stents for esophagus regeneration after surgical removal.”

It’s not a cure for cancer, but considering that it could drastically improve the prognosis of those suffering from one of the most difficult-to-treat cancers, it’s a major step forward. And that’s how pervasive diseases are often eliminated – one step at a time. What are your thoughts on this new device? Discuss in the 3D Printed Stent for Esophageal Cancer forum over at 3DPB.com.

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