3D Printed Tumors Made with Cancer Cells May Hold Key to More Effective Treatments

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3D printed tumor models can help doctors and surgeons to get a better look at and understanding of the masses that they’re going to be treating or removing from a patient’s body, and they can also help patients to understand their own conditions. But bioprinting actual tumors can tell scientists a lot more about cancer in general and how different types respond to different treatments.

A group of Scottish researchers made the news last year when they began 3D printing brain tumors using real cells and using them to study the effects certain treatments had on the cancer cells. Now a team of scientists in New Zealand is doing something similar, starting with the most common type of cancer in women: breast cancer.

Testing drugs on cells grown in lab environments isn’t new, but cells cultured in 2D environments behave very differently from the ones that actually make up a three-dimensional tumor. By 3D printing tumors using actual cancer cells, researchers can get a better idea of how actual tumors might react to a certain drug.

“Normally we would grow cells in a 2D sheet and they grow as one layer what we’re doing here is growing them in a 3d environment so the cells are in a more realistic environment,” said Dr. Elisabeth Phillips of the Mackenzie Cancer Research Group at the University of Otago. “At the moment we’re looking at how chemotherapy agents that are already available can impact on the cancer in 3D.”

Dr. Elisabeth Phillips examines cancer cells under a microscope.

The 3D printed tumors can also be used to test new and experimental cancer treatments, reducing the need for animal testing and giving scientists a better idea of how the drugs will actually work in humans. Dr. Elisabeth Phillips and Khoon Lim, also of the University of Otago, came up with the 3D printing idea and obtained funding to research breast cancer through bioprinted tumors. In the future, said Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute, the same technique could also be used to evaluate treatments for other types of cancer. We’ve already seen similar work in the 3D printed brain tumor research going on in Scotland, but this study is believed to be the first of its kind in New Zealand.

“The sorts of information that will come out of the types of modelling, the banks, the types of tumours that are being looked at will add to knowledge base and will help in our drive to essentially treat and control cancer,” said Berridge.

While survival rates for breast cancer patients have improved, the disease still kills about a quarter of the New Zealand women who contract it, which means that about 600 women per year are dying from breast cancer in that country alone. Technology such as this, though, could help scientists to make much faster progress in the development of new treatments.

“Cancer in 3D environment do behave very differently to chemo drugs as opposed to in a 2d environment, this means we can try to develop a lot of different drugs, more cancer specific drugs that can help patients,” said Lim.

Patient-specific treatment may also be an option in the future, although Lim believes that is still a decade or so away. Imagine that, though – being able to 3D bioprint an actual reproduction of a tumor growing inside a patient, and figuring out the best method of treatment using that print. It could make cancer treatment much faster and more effective, and carve a path forward in what seems like the endless journey toward finding an actual cancer cure. Discuss in the 3D Printed Tumors forum at 3DPB.com.

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