Artificial lung cancer tissue could help find new drug treatments

26 Feb 2019

A 3D hydrogel created by scientists is helping researchers to quickly screen hundreds of potential drugs for their ability to fight highly invasive cancers.

The results from this study have been published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Cell invasion is a critical hallmark of metastatic cancers, such as certain types of lung and brain cancer.

Fighting these cancers requires therapies that can both kill cancer cells as well as prevent cell invasion of healthy tissue.

Today, most cancer drugs are only screened for their ability to kill cancer cells.

"In highly invasive diseases, there is a crucial need to screen for both of these functions," said Shoichet, who is the lead author of this study. "We now have a way to do this."

Shoichet and her team are internationally known for their work on hydrogels, jello-like materials based on hyaluronic acid, a biocompatible substance commonly used in cosmetics.

In the past, they have used hydrogels to enhance stem cells that are injected into the body to overcome disease or degeneration.

In this study, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer which selectively allows cancer cells and not healthy cells, to invade. 

This emulated environment enabled their collaborators to screen for both cancer cell growth and invasion. 

"We can conduct this in a 384-well plate, which is no bigger than your hand. And with image-analysis software, we can automate this method to enable quick, targeted screenings for hundreds of potential cancer treatments," explained Shoichet.

One example is the researchers' drug screening for lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare lung disease affecting women. 

Using their hydrogels, they were able to automate and screen more than 800 drugs, thereby uncovering treatments that could target disease growth and invasion.

In the ongoing collaboration, the researchers plan to next screen multiple drugs at different doses to gain greater insight into new treatment methods for LAM.

The strategies and insights they gain could also help identify new drugs for other invasive cancers.

Shoichet also plans to patent the hydrogel technology.

"This has, and continues to be, a great collaboration that is advancing knowledge at the intersection of engineering and biology," Shoichet concluded.

Source: University of Toronto, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering