A new study found that using hydrogels, biologists can quickly create near-real tissue microenvironments to study how tumors grow and behave.
The development is an important step towards better understanding what happens in diseases where it is becoming increasing clear that the microenvironment of cells can influence their identity, fate and function.
Experts describe the new material and how it was tested as a model to study tumor biology in the journal of Advanced Materials.
They believe that the synthetic, 3D microenvironment they have devised lies somewhere between the plastic lab plate and animal models that are created by injecting mice with human tumor cells.
During the study breast cancer cells and macrophages were mixed and researchers watched how they behaved considerably differently in hydrogel compared with the current research standard which observes the mixtures behavior on a flat hard plastic plate.
Marcophages are cells of the immune system that normally seek and destroy unwanted materials like cell debris and bacteria. Studies on cell signaling suggest that they may be involved in the spread of breast cancer.
This is the first time where it has been demonstrated that the use of a rapid methodology like this to spatially define cancer cells and macrophages is possible. Once that architecture is established researchers can begin to ask fundamental biological questions.
The method created a synthetic environment with a simple concentric flow device in a single step in approximately 15 minutes. The environment successfully mimics the sizes and shapes of the microenvironment inside the tissue being investigated and offers a range of geometric architectures.
The material appears to be better than the ones drug developers currently use to test how their products affect cells. For example, they cannot accurately replicated the 3D nature of tiny networks of blood vessels that carry the drug in tissue. The new material can make network shapes that range from straight to snake-like, depending on the specified tissue.
Researchers foresee the new tool as a rapid means to match the best treatment to the patient.