3D Tissue

3D Tissue Photo Credit: Courtesy: National Science Foundation

3D scaffolding in cells helps scientists understand a patient’s cancer cells and personalize treatments.


Treating cancer outside the body. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Every breast cancer patient is unique, and Clemson bioengineer Karen Burg would like to make their treatments just as unique—personalized to their tumors and the tissue that surrounds them. Burg and her colleagues are using a device similar to a 3D printer to create a scaffold on which they can grow a patient’s own cells, and tumor cells growing alongside them.

You could test different combinations of anti-cancer agents rather than having to test it on the patient. And so if you use tumor cells taken from the patient, that becomes very powerful and what we call personalized because you’re getting information very specific to that individual.

In addition to serving as a model for personalized treatment, the 3D systems could also be used to study the interactions between living tissues and the tumor cells within them. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Karen Burg is one of seven inaugural AAAS Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, a group of scientists and engineers who share their stories and passion for invention with public audiences around the country. To learn more about her fellow winners or the 2015 group, visit AAAS Lemelson Invention Ambassadors. Applications for the 2016–17 class of Invention Ambassadors are open through April 4, 2016.

Making Sense of the Research

Personalized medicine seems to be the wave of the future, and this Science Update examines one technique that can be used to help personalize treatment for cancer patients. A 3D cell culture is an artificially created environment in which biological cells are permitted to grow or interact with their surroundings in all three dimensions. Cancer researchers believe that using this method can provide them with a more accurate picture of how the cancer cells behave and how anti-cancer agents can affect them.

In this study, Burg and her colleagues build scaffolds, or frameworks, that mimic the 3D structure of human tissue. They use a machine called a biofabricator to deposit cancer cells at strategic locations inside the 3D structures, just like tumors in the human body. They, in effect, use the structures to grow (or culture) the cancer cells artificially. Burg and her team can grow cancer cells in bulk, which allows them to burn through possible treatments more quickly and efficiently than in the past. This technique can speed up the time it takes to develop treatments for cancer patients.

According to Burg, the type of 3D structure that they build depends on whether the patient is an early stage or late stage cancer patient. Some of the structures are as simple as a pool of gel while others are more sophisticated and can be cut into custom shapes (like the one in the image at the top of this page). For cancer patients, their cancer cells are harvested and inserted into these structures to determine the most effective strategy for treating them. In this sense, every breast cancer patient, for example, will receive a treatment tailored to the characteristics of their particular tumors.

"This work contributes to the basic understanding of how cells function and communicate with the environment in a three-dimensional tissue structure, which is a challenging and unsolved problem," said Friedrich Srienc, a program director in the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering, which funded the research.

It is the hope of the scientists involved in this work that their research may one day change the way doctors treat the disease.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a 3D cell culture?
  2. What do cancer researchers think this method can provide for them?
  3. What is a biofabricator?
  4. Are the 3D structures the researchers build the same for every patient? Why or why not?
  5. What do the scientists hope will happen with their research?
  6. This is an example of personalized medicine. Have you heard about this medical practice? Can you think of other examples?

You can follow up this Science Update by watching a video on this research from Science Nation called 3-D Tissue, which was produced by the National Science Foundation.

You can listen to Cancer-Sniffing Dogs to learn how dogs are being used to help sniff out cancer.

Going Further

For Educators

The scientist featured in this Science Update is Karen Burg, who was one of seven inaugural AAAS Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, a group of scientists and engineers who share their stories and passion for invention with public audiences around the country. You can use this Science Update to demonstrate how a scientist might go about studying a problem and also to encourage your students to consider working in this type of field.

In addition, you can encourage your students to think about the technology used in this research. Ask them to think about how this technology is helping scientists learn more about a deadly disease and find new ways of treating it. You could ask them if they have ideas for new ways of studying a problem or finding a solution.

These Science NetLinks resources can help further the learning in this Science Update:

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