Engineers Create New Technology for Understanding Cancer Growth

A team of U of T engineers is unrolling the mysteries of cancer — literally. They have developed a way to grow cancer cells in the form of a rolled-up sheet that mimics the 3D environment of a tumour, yet can also be taken apart in seconds. The platform, described in a new Nature Materials paper, offers a way to speed up the development of new drugs and therapies and ask new questions about how cancer cells behave.

The drawbacks of studying cancer cells in a traditional petri dish are well known. While cells in a tumour grow in three dimensions, the dish is only two-dimensional. Moreover, cells in the centre of a tumour have less access to oxygen and nutrients than those growing near the surface, close to the blood vessels. These subtle, location-dependent differences have a big impact on cell behaviour, but have proven difficult to replicate in a dish.

In response, tissue engineers have tried to build more realistic 3D models by impregnating porous, sponge-like materials with cells and stacking them like building blocks. Professor Alison McGuigan (ChemE, IBBME) is among them, but she was challenged to think differently about the problem by talking with Professor Radhakrishnan Mahadevan (ChemE, IBBME). (McGuigan and Mahadevan are both members of U of T Engineering’s BioZone.)

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