Glioblastoma is a rare but deadly form of brain cancer that is incredibly resilient. When tumours are surgically removed, the cancer frequently returns violently. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy only have negligible effects. Approximately half of patients die within 18 months.
However, Virginia Tech researchers have developed a cutting-edge, 3D tissue-engineered model of the glioblastoma tumour microenvironment that can be used to understand why tumours recur and what therapies will work best to eradicate them, right down to the individual patient level.
Corresponding author of the paper and associate professor at VTC’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Jennifer Munson, says, “Our goal is ultimately to develop a personalized medicine approach in which we can take a patient’s tumour, build a model of that tumour in a dish, test drugs on it, and tell a clinician which therapy will work best to treat it.”
Finding new cancer markers and treatments depends on the model, which is an essential step in the process. The capacity of cancer cells to renew and differentiate themselves, which is an indicator of how the cancer will respond to drug treatments, has already been identified in research using the new model as a new way to understand a patient’s tumour.
Munson, a tissue engineer and associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics as well as co-director of the Virginia Tech Cancer Research Alliance, developed the models in 2014. While there are other engineered models, this one takes into account the space for the tumour to grow and spread, as well as other elements of the actual tumour microenvironment.
Munson’s models, which are typically about the size of a pencil eraser, more faithfully reproduce that study environment by including cells specific to the central nervous system, like astrocytes and microglia, and by arranging them in ratios based on those observed in patients.
Understanding why glioblastoma is so challenging to treat requires an understanding of the microenvironment. Even though a tumour can be removed, cancerous cells have a tendency to spread to nearby tissue where they become more dangerous or resistant to treatments, causing the cancer to spread again.
Munson and her colleagues investigated how cancer cells invade tissue, multiply, regenerate, and how many cells they can kill using the models. They discovered that the outcomes varied greatly, highlighting the importance of a personalised medicine approach for treating glioblastoma and the importance of being able to recreate the tumour microenvironment for a specific patient.