New experiments that grow tiny cancer cells in the lab may help doctors to customise treatments according to each patient's needs in the future.

Experiments conducted at an underground laboratory at Vanderbilt University may prove vital in the fight against cancer. Alex Walsh, a biomedical researcher, is using a laser to make what she calls “organoids” glow.

“Organoids are small pieces of a patients’ tumor that are about 100 to 300 microns in diameter and they grow as kind of sphere like shapes.” says Walsh, who recently successfully defended her dissertation on the topic of organoids.

A tiny sample is placed in dish filled with a collagen gel, which feeds the tiny tumor, allowing the different cell types that comprise it to thrive as they would inside the human body.

The organoid is then dosed with a cocktail of cancer drugs and placed under a microscope at which point it is blasted with a laser. The laser is tuned to the frequencies that cause two enzymes in the cells to glow or fluoresce.

A false-coloured image of a single breast cancer cell seen under an electron microscope.

Measuring the variations in the intensity of the resulting fluorescence provides a read-out of cellular metabolism, which Walsh says is an accurate and speedy biomarker of drug response. “We’re using these read-outs of cellular metabolism to predict the drug response that the sample came from,” adds Walsh.

This “tumour-on-a-dish” method has proven successful in mice and Melissa Skala, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University, says the team are now trailing it on tumours from breast cancer patients. She says everyone’s cancer is unique, which is why customising treatment options is essential.

“So the idea here is to eliminate those drugs that don’t work and if needed replace them with drugs that do work so we are hoping to have the smallest common denominator of drugs that achieve the lowest toxicity yet achieve treatment efficacy,” says Skala, adding that the method could prove a game changer for cancer patients.

Customising treatment

Skala says that having the ability to customise a drug protocol for patients before they start chemo may significantly improve the odds for a successful treatment. “Between 30% and 40% of patients that receive those therapies as their first line therapy don’t respond to those drugs. And so they suffer toxicity from treatment that ultimately isn’t going to benefit them,” she says.

“I think we can add to what’s already been done and hopefully just improve the experience of the patient so that they recover faster,” she adds.

Along with breast cancer, Skala and her team have also started testing the organoids derived from pancreatic cancer patients. If further trials prove successful, Skala estimates it will take 5 to 10 years to move tumour-on-dishes out of the lab and into the clinic. – Reuters