Creating New Technology to Understand Cancer Growth

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Engineers at the University of Toronto are “unrolling” the mysteries of cancer… literally. They have developed a way to grow cancer cells in the form of a rolled-up sheet that mimics the 3D environment of a tumor, yet can also be taken apart in seconds. The platform offers a way to speed up the development of new drugs and therapies and ask new questions about how cancer cells behave.

The difficulties of studying cancer cells in a traditional petri dish are well known. Growing tumors in petri dishes is a standard approach for this kind of work, but it has a problem: in a real tumor, cells near the center of the mass have less access to oxygen and nutrients, and these subtle differences are tough to replicate in a flat dish. Another approach, growing cancer cells on building blocks made of porous sponge, results in a 3D model with differing oxygen levels but leaves researchers with discontinuous blocks of cells to keep track of.

The rolled-up cancer strip, on the other hand, is essentially a 3D model that can be laid out in 2D. Its cells get less and less oxygen along the strip on a smooth gradient towards the center of the device, making it easier to analyze. Because of this, it can also be a boon for basic research into what makes a normal cell turn cancerous.

Personalized cancer treatment is a growing field. At Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, fruit flies are being modified to have the same genetic defects as individual cancer patients, so they can be tested for cancer treatments that might work on the patient.

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