Cancer microchip breaks new ground

April 8, 2016

Failures to make sufficient strides in cancer treatment despite decades of aggressive research – much of it using animals – have scientists seeking new ways to examine the problem.

A team of researchers at Purdue University are pursuing a treatment modality using two approaches that may break new ground.

One is to re-examine the underlying process of killing the tumor itself.


 Photo credit: Purdue University

"We used to think that if we just killed the tumor cell it would cure the cancer, but now we know it's not just the cancer cells alone that we have to deal with," said Dr. Murray Korc, Professor of Cancer Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who was involved with the research. "There are a lot of different cells and blood vessel structure, making for a complex environment that supports the cancer cells."

Dr. Korc’s statement underscores the growing understanding that it’s not just the tumor itself, but the complex environment around the tumor that must be part of the treatment strategy – what has become known as the “microenvironment.”

This is one reason why animal experiments so often fail. Tumors implanted into animals will not mirror the true tumor microenvironment seen in human patients.

To target the tumor microenvironment, the Purdue team is turning to nanotechnology, which is the science and engineering of sub-microscopic particles. In medicine, these tiny particles are being utilized for their ability to pass through tissue and target delivery of therapeutic agents directly to the cancer site.


"This kind of research currently involves a very large number of experiments, and it makes animal testing expensive and time consuming," said Dr. Kinam Park, a professor of pharmaceutics and biomedical engineering at Purdue. "Moreover, small animal data have not been good predictors of clinical outcome. Thus, it is essential to develop in-vitro test methods that can represent the microenvironment of human tumors."

The second step of their approach has been to develop a micro-chip specifically designed to study the cancer microenvironment without using animals.

The chip, labeled a tumor-microenvironment-on-chip or T-MOC, builds on recent advances to produce miniature cell-culture systems using human cells that can simulate human biology in real time.

"Recent advances in tissue engineering and microfluidic technologies present an opportunity to realize in-vitro platforms as alternatives to animal testing," says Dr. Park.

The T-MOC chip is one more recent development to bring about pivotal change in the field of cancer research, based on increasing recognition for the limitations of animal experiments.


Purdue University’s news release points out that “research with laboratory mice has rarely translated into successful clinical results in humans, suggesting that a more effective approach might be to concentrate on research using in-vitro experiments that mimic human physiology.”

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