University of Minnesota researchers have developed a way to study cancer cells which could lead to new and improved treatment. They have developed a new way to study these cells in a 3-D in vitro model;(i.e. in a culture dish rather than in a human or animal). In a paper recently published in Advanced Materials; Angela Panoskaltsis-Mortari and her fellow researchers found; that cells behave differently in this 3-D soft tissue environment than on 2-D plastic or glass surfaces; for example.

A platform to identify potential therapies

“This model is more consistent with what the body is like,” said Panoskaltsis-Mortari, “and, therefore, studying the effects of drugs with human cells at this level makes the results more meaningful and predictive of what will happen in the body.” The 3-D vascularized tumor tissues provide a platform to identify potential therapies and screen anticancer drugs. Importantly, this new model also provides a means to study metastatic cells—cancer cells that have entered a blood vessel and traveled to another site.

“One of the reasons this model is successful is that we are better able to control the environment,” said Fanben Meng, Post-Doctoral Associate in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. “We are able to slowly cause the release of the chemical mediators and create a chemical gradient. It gives the cells time to behave in a way that’s similar to what we think happens in the body.”

Next step is to incorporate immune system cells

“All of this is enabled by our custom-built 3-D printing technology; which allows us to precisely place clusters of cells and chemical depots in a 3-D environment;” said Michael C. McAlpine, Ph.D.; Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota and co-corresponding author on the paper. Initially, the researchers have focused on lung cancer and melanoma. The next step is to incorporate more cell types; especially immune system cells; as well as cell therapies, and study those interactions.

“Testing anti-cancer drugs and cell therapies are both concepts that the University of Minnesota is world renowned for, and, with this model; we continue to be on the forefront of those innovations;” said Daniel Vallera.”Something like this can yield some very important answers between the relationship of vasculature and drugs because this is modular; you can add elements to it and make it more sophisticated. You can even use the patients’ own tumor cells in this model.”