Studying How Disease Metastasizes Using a Lifelike Cancer Environment Created with 3D Jet Writing

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Pancreatic cancer cells.

It’s probably safe to say that most people have been affected by cancer in one way or another, whether in being diagnosed themselves or watching a loved one battle the disease. There are researchers who are working to detect cancer using 3D printed devices, but it’s not always fast enough. The technology has also been called on many times to help create cancer treatments, from testing new drugs on 3D printed tumors to developing innovative drug delivery systems.

Obviously, it’s not easy trying to treat cancer, and research shows that most often, cancer kills due to how it metastasizes, or spreads, in a person’s body. What’s difficult is not being able to experiment with metastasis itself, to see what can be done to stop cancer from spreading.

But now, researchers from the University of Michigan have a better understanding of how cancer metastasizes, thanks to a lifelike cancer environment the team developed, that’s made out of polymer material. This environment can also provide scientists and doctors with a better way to predict if and how certain drugs can stop the spread of cancer.

This would normally be the part of the story where I tell you that 3D printing played a major part in developing this polymer cancer environment. While that is true to a point, the work needed technology that could deliver even more accuracy.

Luis Solorio [Image: Purdue University]

Luis Solorio, now an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, explained, “We need a much finer resolution than what a 3-D printer can create.”

There have been other studies where researchers created a controlled cancer-like environment with 3D printing, but those replicas were not realistic enough for the purposes of accurate drug screening. Instead, Solorio and the rest of the research team are using technology known as 3D writing to make these replica cancer environments.

The researchers developed a device for 3D jet writing, which is a form of electrospinning. This method uses an electrically charged syringe, which contains a polymer solution, to spin out fiber threads from this solution and deposit them onto a plate in order to build a 3D scaffold structure that facilitates cell activity.

A 3D jet writer produces polymer structures that model the biological tissue cancer cells penetrate. [Image: University of Michigan, Luis Solorio]

The team’s 3D jet writer is not unlike a 3D printer in that it can produce polymer microtissues that are shaped just the way they are inside the body – the only difference is that the device is able to do so on a more authentic, smaller scale. Additionally, the microtissues have pores that are large enough to allow cancer cells to enter the polymer structure, similar to how they would spread into a person’s system.

The University of Michigan researchers recently published a paper on their 3D jet writing work, titled “3D Jet Writing: Functional Microtissues Based on Tessellated Scaffold Architectures,” in the journal Advanced Materials. Co-authors of the paper are Jacob H. Jordahl, Solorio, Hongli Sun, Stacy Ramcharan, Clark B. Teeple, Henry R. Haley, Kyung Jin Lee, Thomas W. Eyster, Gary D. Luker, Paul H. Krebsbach, and Joerg Lahann.

These initial published findings are based on work that Solorio began while part of a team at the university’s Biointerfaces Institute; he finished writing the paper and completed the data analysis while he was on the faculty at Purdue.

This diagram conceptualizes the 3D jet writer that researchers are using to engineer a cancer microenvironment. [Image: University of Michigan, Luis Solorio]

The abstract reads, “The advent of adaptive manufacturing techniques supports the vision of cell-instructive materials that mimic biological tissues. 3D jet writing, a modified electrospinning process reported herein, yields 3D structures with unprecedented precision and resolution offering customizable pore geometries and scalability to over tens of centimeters. These scaffolds support the 3D expansion and differentiation of human mesenchymal stem cells in vitro. Implantation of these constructs leads to the healing of critical bone defects in vivo without exogenous growth factors. When applied as a metastatic target site in mice, circulating cancer cells home in to the osteogenic environment simulated on 3D jet writing scaffolds, despite implantation in an anatomically abnormal site. Through 3D jet writing, the formation of tessellated microtissues is demonstrated, which serve as a versatile 3D cell culture platform in a range of biomedical applications including regenerative medicine, cancer biology, and stem cell biotechnology.”

These scanning electron micrographs depict square honeycomb scaffolds with pore sizes of (A-E) 750 µm, 500 µm, 400 µm, 300 µm, and 250 µm.

So far, the team has created a 3D written structure model with their device that was able to draw cancer cells to sites inside mice where cancer normally doesn’t show up. This proves that the 3D jet writer is able to make a realistic cancer environment, which will someday help doctors better understand how cancer spreads.

Other studies that Solorio has completed have, according to a release by Purdue, “increased cancer cells in human samples for better analysis and maintained receptors on these cells that drugs would need to find.”

Solorio explained, “Ideally, we could use our system as an unbiased drug screening platform where we could screen thousands of compounds, hopefully get data within a week, and get it back to a clinician so that it’s all within a relevant time frame.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com, or leave a comment below.

[Source: Purdue University] [Editor’s Note: This article was updated 3/8/18 to amend citations.]

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