Historically, cancer research has been conducted using cell lines that grow in a petri dish. We’ve been able to learn a lot and make much progress in the fight against cancer using this approach, but it also has some limitations, as the environment is not truly reflective of the way cancer cells grow and metastasize within the human body – a three-dimensional (3-D) environment. Additionally, cell lines can mutate over time and then sometimes no longer reflect the genetic and molecular variants of cancer cells.
Over the past 10-15 years, medical research has evolved and grown (literally and figuratively) – what used to only be possible in sci-fi movies and imaginations is now a reality as we create mini-models of bodily organs in the laboratory. These 3-D structures are also known as organoids, and an exciting area of this research is related to cancerous tumors.
Cancer biopsies remove tumor cells directly from the body. Often these biopsies are conducted when a primary tumor is found and removed, and sometimes also if the cancer has grown and spread to other locations throughout the body. This is because tumor cells evolve and change over time, especially as they try to develop workarounds in response to treatment. From the tumor cells that are removed in a biopsy, we’re analyzing the pathology and learning about the cancer on the molecular and genetic level, including any mutations we may be able to target.
Another way we’re able to use these tumor cells is to grow organoids in order to replicate the tumor outside of the body. This 3-D representation of the tumor allows us to conduct research in a way that better addresses the complex structure of the cancer. It is a form of precision medicine or personalized medicine, and allows us to test how an individual patient’s cancer cells may respond to a wide range of treatments.
This video created by the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine provides an overview of how this process works: