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Artificially engineered breast cancer tissue offers platform for drug testing


Breast cancer research at Auburn University

Assistant Professor Elizabeth Lipke's research group has typically focused on engineering cardiac tissue, but doctoral student Shantanu Pradhan was able to build on that research to create artificial breast cancer tissue.

A team of Auburn University researchers is engineering artificial breast cancer tissue that will provide fellow cancer researchers with a 3-D model on which they can test cancer drugs.

The research conducted by Assistant Professor Elizabeth Lipke and doctoral student Shantanu Pradhan in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering's Department of Chemical Engineering is part of a growing focus worldwide on engineering cancer tissue in a 3-D format, rather than the 2-D format biologists have traditionally used to grow cancer cells.

The research in Lipke's lab has historically focused on engineering cardiac tissue and developing cardiac regeneration techniques, but Pradhan found a link between that research and cancer-related angiogenesis, which is the growth of new blood vessels.

"Cancer is an area that biomedical engineers, and in particular tissue engineers, are just starting to get into modeling, but people have been working on tissue engineering for cardiac and other applications for a lot longer," Lipke said. "In terms of understanding cancer biology, we're really at the beginning of applying the things we know from other organ systems to understanding cancer in three dimensions."

The researchers say modeling the cancer tissue in a 3-D format is important because it simulates how cancer grows in the human body. Certain cancer drugs may kill cancer cells grown in a 2-D format, "but when the same drug is applied to a tumor growing in a 3-D format in the human body, it might not have the same effect," Pradhan said. "It might be much weaker. It might not be able to kill off all the cells as it did in the 2-D format."

The researchers create the cancer tissue using a biomaterial called PEG-fibrinogen, which is made of the synthetic polymer poly(ethylene glycol) and fibrinogen, a protein produced by the liver that is critical to the blood-clotting process. After combining the cancer cells with the PEG-fibrinogen biomaterial in a substance called a hydrogel, they keep the sample at a temperature similar to that of the human body and observe over a period of time that the cancer cells grow, much like a cancerous tumor in the human body.

Breast cancer research at Auburn University

Other researchers affiliated with the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer hope to use the breast cancer model to test cancer drugs that are under development.

The researchers are performing various tests to examine how the cells respond to the surrounding environment and to characterize the different properties of the cancer cells, such as specific genes or proteins that cause the cancer-like behavior.

Other cancer researchers at Auburn have expressed interest in testing the cancer drugs they are developing on the 3-D breast cancer model. One of the biggest advantages to testing on the artificial tissue is that drug trials performed on animals may eventually become redundant, Pradhan said.

Under the current trial system, cancer drugs are tested on mice or rats that have cancerous tumors, and if the drug has a positive effect, it may then be applied to human trials. Pradhan said a better model would be to test the cancer drugs on the artificial tissue, which is designed to simulate human tissue, rather than on an animal whose physiology is much different than that of a human.

Breast cancer research at Auburn University

Pradhan believes the 3-D breast cancer model has the potential to improve how drug trials are conducted.

Testing the cancer drugs on the artificial tissue could potentially reduce drug costs and the amount of time it takes cancer drugs to come to market in the future. The researchers say that will be a big public health benefit as cancer continues to be one of the leading causes of death in the United States each year.

The American Cancer Society estimates that one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime.

Research like that being conducted in Lipke's lab is a big reason why the Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer, or AURIC, was founded in 2012, said Bruce Smith, the initiative's director. AURIC, housed in the College of Veterinary Medicine, utilizes a "One Medicine" concept that sees human and animal health as a single field where discoveries in one species advance health in both species.

"One of our goals is to be interdisciplinary, to bring people from different disciplines together and enhance cancer research that way " Smith said. "And hopefully when we do that, we get new and better ways of approaching cancer."

By Chris Anthony, Graduate School

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Last Updated: Sept. 25, 2013

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