Cancer is one of, if not the most, difficult and frustrating diseases on the planet. There is no cure, and it can pop up in anyone, anywhere, anytime. One of the reasons cancer can be so deadly is because it has the ability to spread throughout the body through metastasis. While a cancerous tumor in one part of the body may not have been lethal on its own, its potential for danger jumps drastically if it spreads to another body part like the brain.

A new device made by U.S. researchers might just be a huge step in combating this aspect of cancer. A small, sponge-like implant, the device has shown it’s capable of mopping up cancer cells as they move through the bodies of mice. The implant also seemed to halt rogue cancer cells in their tracks, stopping them from reaching other areas where new tumors could grow. Researchers showed how the device could act as a warning system in patients, alerting doctors earlier about where new tumors might spring up.

About 5 millimeters in diameter, the device is made of a “biomaterial” that has already been approved for use in medical devices. It is implanted in either the abdominal fat or under the skin, and works by imitating a process in which cells that break loose from a tumor are pulled to other areas of the body by immune cells, according to researchers. These immune cells were found attached to the implant — a natural reaction to a foreign invader — and subsequently drew the cancer cells in.

Interestingly, the scientists found that the device, which has so far only been tested in mice with breast cancer, did more than just capture cancer cells — it also reduced the number of these cells present at other sites.

Researchers have been trying to find a way to detect cancer metastasis at an earlier stage, but the cancer cells circulating in the bloodstream are often hard to detect. Dr. Lonnie Shea, of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, said the team is planning clinical trials in humans fairly soon.

“We need to see if metastatic cells will show up in the implant in humans like they did in the mice, and also if it’s a safe procedure and that we can use the same imaging to detect cancer cells,” he told BBC.

Shea explained that his team would continue working with animals to observe the overall outcome if cancer spread was detected at an earlier stage, something not yet fully understood.

Source: Shea L, Azarin S, Gower R, Aguado B, Sullivan M, Goodman A, et al. In Vivo Capture And Label-Free Detection Of Early Metastatic Cells. Nature Communications. 2015.