Liver cancer mini-tumours grown in a dish for the first time

19 November 2017
Posted by Lewis Thomson.

Scientists have developed a new method of growing liver cancer cells in the lab, which could greatly improve our ability to treat patients with liver cancer.

Primary liver cancer causes around 800,000 deaths every year. Fewer than 1 in 5 people who are diagnosed with the disease survive past five years from diagnosis – making it one of the deadliest cancers in terms of survival rate. Primary liver cancer refers specifically to cancer that begins in the liver – as opposed to secondary liver cancer, which is cancer that begins somewhere else and then spreads to the liver.

In order to better understand the disease, scientists grow liver cancer cells in the lab, and test different treatments on these cells. Normally the cells are grown as a flat, two-dimensional sheet of cells. However, some scientists argue that this is not an accurate representation of real tumours, so some treatments which work in the lab will not work in patients.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge published work in Nature Medicine this week, describing how they have grown liver cancer cells as three-dimensional, tumour-like structures. These are called "tumour organoids" (or "tumouroids").

“We collect a section of a tumour from a patient, and then in the lab we divide this section into four parts”, explains Dr Laura Broutier, one of the researchers involved in the work. “One part we use to do organoid culture, and the other parts we use to assess the genetics of the original tumour. We have shown that these organoids are mimicking the original tumour. Cells in 2D cultures acquire new mutations that are not in the patient at the beginning, whereas these 3D cultures keep the original mutations, and don’t acquire new mutations.”

Having shown that the tumouroids were highly similar to the original tumours from patients, the team then tested various cancer treatment drugs on them. They found that tumouroids from different patients responded very differently to each drug – suggesting that treatment success depends on the different DNA mutations within the cancer cells.

Broutier hopes that their method can be used in the near future to help patients get the most effective treatment.

“The aim is to develop this system so that a patient can get an organoid-derived cell line that can be used to test several drugs, and then the drug that seems best can be used in the patient.”

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