Professor Rui Reis at IET

Funding for 3D cancer models should speed up development of therapies

Image credit: The Institution of Engineering and Technology

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has awarded funding to Professor Rui Reis and his research group at the University of Minho, Portugal. The researchers aim to engineer 3D cancer models that could improve early-stage testing of new cancer therapies and reduce the need for animal testing.

Reis heads the 3B’s (Biomaterials, Biodegradables and Biomimetics) Research Group at the University of Minho. This 200-member lab is dedicated to research in bone replacement, drug delivery, bone cements, bio-printing and other subjects at the intersection of biotechnology, materials science and biomedical engineering. The lab specialises in developing useful biomaterials from polymers of natural origins for their work, such as collagens from squid and sharks, or chitin from lobsters.

In recent years, says Reis, the lab has increased its focus on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

“We engineer tissues in the lab; we do bones, skin, cartilage, a lot of [work] with stem cells, but recently we have been moving to try to do 3D cancer models using similar technology,” he said. “We combine cancer cells with healthy cells in a 3D architecture, then we can screen for new therapies and drugs to see if they will work.”

At present, the path from lab bench to patient for cancer therapies is littered with complications and restrictions. The bulk of research into cancer treatments uses simplistic 2D models – which use cancer cells in a dish – which cannot accurately replicate the complex 3D conditions you find inside the body. Animal models, meanwhile, are not always representative of human bodies.

Many drug candidates only fail when they are nearly in clinical trials, says Reis. Being able to sort the promising therapies from the duds earlier on in the process could save a huge amount of time and money in the staggeringly long and costly process of drug development.

The creation of a more realistic 3D platform for screening cancer treatments could allow for new, promising drugs to pass straight into (reduced) animal testing, or directly to preclinical trials.

Using funds awarded by the IET, Reis will lead a project to develop 3D cancer models. Researchers from a range of backgrounds will work together at the lab to develop realistic models for breast, lung, liver, bone and skin cancer. This will involve 3D bioprinting using different cells and materials, localising cells, and introducing microfluidics to mimic cancer in the human body as closely as possible.

By the end of the five-year project, the researchers hope to have developed useful models which allow for the detailed study of how cancers respond to new therapies. While research teams elsewhere are working on similar platforms, Reis believes that this project may prove unique in that it is highly multidisciplinary, and based on a tissue engineering approach making use of the group’s particular expertise.

This could accelerate the screening of lifesaving drugs; allowing safe and effective treatments to reach patients faster in the future, identifying dangerous effects earlier in the process, as well as reducing unnecessary animal testing and even some clinical trials.

“You really get more reliable and trustable results, because you have a much more similar situation to the situation you have in real life,” Reis said. “We can develop things that we can screen at a much earlier stage that might save a lot of people [this] will have a strong impact on our healthcare, quality of life and may even save lives.”

The IET Harvey Prize, which comes with £350,000 of prize money, is intended to support research in medical, microwave, laser or radar engineering.

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