The impact might be ‘massive’, according to Y. Shrike Zhang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who is researching 3D bioprinting. “It is not the only technique that may allow in vitro tumor modeling, but it is unquestionably one of the most capable.”
What difference does it make? Because 2D cell cultures, which are often used today, may not reflect all of the complexity of how cancer grows, spreads, and responds to treatment. It’s one of the reasons why only 3.4% of possible new cancer treatments survive all clinical trials, according to one estimate. The results of the culture dish may not be transferred to the patient.
A 3D bioprinted model, on the other hand, maybe better at replicating a tumor’s ‘microenvironment’, which includes all of the elements (cells, chemicals, blood arteries) that surround a tumor.
“The tumor microenvironment plays an integral role in defining how cancer progresses,” says Madhuri Dey, a Ph.D. candidate and researcher at Penn State University. “In-vitro 3D models are an attempt at reconstituting a [cancer] microenvironment, which sheds light on how tumors respond to chemo or immunotherapeutic treatments when they are present in a native-like microenvironment.”
Dey is the lead author of a National Science Foundation-funded study in which breast cancer tumors were 3D-bioprinted and effectively treated. This model, unlike prior 3D models of cancer cells, performed a better job of simulating that microenvironment, according to Dey.
“So far, 3D bioprinting of cancer models has been limited to bioprinting of individual cancer cells laden in hydrogels,” she says. However, she and her colleagues developed a technology (called aspiration-assisted bioprinting) that allows them to control the location of blood vessels relative to the tumor. “This model lays the foundation for studying these nuances of cancer,” Dey says.
“This is quite cool work,” Zhang says of the Penn State study (in which he was not involved). “Vascularization is always a key component in [a] majority of the tumor types.” A model that includes blood arteries fills a ‘critical niche’ in cancer research, allowing tumor models to attain their full potential.
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