2 min readMicro-Environment of Breast Cancer in Three Dimensions
State College, PA — Cancerous tumours thrive on blood, extending their roots deep into the fabric of the tissue of their host. They alter the genetics of surrounding cells and evolve to avoid the protective attacks of immune cells. Now, Penn State researchers have developed a way to study the relationship between solid, difficult-to-treat tumours and the microenvironment they create to support their growth.
The method has the potential to act as a testbed for drugs and other anticancer treatments, according to Ibrahim T. Ozbolat, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics and biomedical engineering, who led the research. The details of the approach were published in Advanced Biology.
Using metastatic triple-negative breast cancer cells — the most aggressive breast cancer, for which there are few treatments — and specialized modelling techniques, the researchers cultivated tumour microenvironments.
“We brought together the tumour and its microenvironment and studied how the embedded tumour affects its surrounding matrix,” said Madhuri Dey, first author on the paper and a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry in the Eberly College of Science. “Then we asked if we could get any meaningful genetic information from this composite system.”
Typically, researchers examine the genetic information of single cells in a system to understand which signals are being sent and received to encourage specific behaviours. However, Dey said, the individual actions may not reveal every facet of a composite system.
“We looked at the genome of the entire system,” Dey said. “The result was a far more representative understanding of how cells talk to each other in the native conditions.”
They found that the physiological changes in tumour behaviour — such as growth or movement — are a direct result of cellular communication in the tumour’s microenvironment. Cancer cells communicate with the cells lining blood vessels, called endothelial cells, that also control the exchange of materials between blood and the extracellular environment. Cancer also communicates with the cells that secrete collagen to produce the scaffolding of tissues, called fibroblasts.
“The cancer-endothelial cell crosstalk is equally important as the cancer-fibroblast crosstalk,” Dey said, noting that each process can influence the other and change how the cancer grows.
To test their approach, the researchers 3D-bioprinted tumour models called spheroids in a microenvironment to see how distance might influence tumour growth.
“We asked, ‘Can proximity increase cancer aggressiveness?’ and we found that there is a critical distance,” Dey said. “Tumours far apart don’t affect each other, but endothelial cells from neighbouring tumours can nourish each other and increase how aggressively the cancer spreads.”
Next, the researchers plan to use the fabrication method to investigate how immune cells engineered to target cancer cells can be improved to penetrate solid tumours and limit their spread.
“We could also use this as a personalized tool to test treatment effectiveness for individual people — that’s a future goal,” Ozbolat said. “There are so many ways in which we can apply this tumour microenvironment model.”
Article adapted from a Penn State news release.
Publication: Studying Tumor Angiogenesis and Cancer Invasion in a Three‐Dimensional Vascularized Breast Cancer Micro‐Environment. Dey, M et al. Advanced Biology (April 15, 2021): Click here to view.