Building micro systems to mimic cancer cells

Cancer remains a leading cause of deaths globally. Many treatments for cancers exist, of course, but are limited in their scope and success.

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Recent research coming from the Universities of Wisconsin and California suggests that bioengineered microscale organotypic models (BMOMs) will enhance our understanding of cancer cells, from a patient-perspective. The research from the two groups, published in the journal APL Bioengineering describes how biopsies can be used to monitor biological processes. The paper looks towards the improvement of in vitro models. BMOMs employ microfluidic technology, with sample contained in microchambers, connected via microchannels and using volumes in the micro litre range. This set up allows researchers to control the biology in a similar manner to how cells are organised and to employ similar systems of nutrient and waste flow. By using actual patient samples, the new technique circumvents the main issue of animal models in that the results are directly relatable to humans and the clinic. Only very small patient samples are required for BMOMs, conferring a practical advantage over much larger, traditional in vitro models. The models merge the best aspects in of in vivo and in vitro models, capturing the cell-cell and broader interactions that are implicated in how patients respond to treatment.

BMOMs are still limited themselves, however, as they are difficult to manufacture – particularly in larger quantities – and require training to use effectively. It’s also vitally important to have a deep understanding of how to effectively build BMOMs that replicate real human biology. And, as with all biological systems, they are complex. Design may ultimately see some benefits from computational biology, which itself models biological systems, building cross-functionality between in vitro and in silico. With further research and trials, though, it is hoped the BMOMs will facilitate patient-specific treatment of cancers.

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