The cells of our bodies live in squishy, wet habitats with shapes and structures that are hard to replicate in the lab. Now, a new study reveals how, using hydrogels, biologists can quickly create near-real tissue microenvironments to study how tumors grow and behave.

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The new material will allow biologists to observe how tumor cells grow and behave in a 3D microenvironment that is nearly like real tissue.

The development is a significant step toward a better understanding of what happens in diseases like cancer, where it is becoming increasingly clear that the microenvironment of cells can influence their identity, fate and function.

Scientists and engineers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign describe the new material and how they tested it as a model to study tumor biology in the journal Advanced Materials.

The team believes the synthetic, 3D microenvironment they have devised lies somewhere between the plastic lab plate and animal models that are created by injecting mice with human tumor cells.

For their study, the researchers mixed breast cancer cells and macrophages and watched how they behaved quite differently in the hydrogel compared with the current research standard: the flat, hard plastic plate.

Macrophages are cells of the immune system that normally seek and destroy unwanted materials like cell debris and bacteria. Research on cell signaling suggests they may be involved in the spread of breast cancer.

Corresponding author Kristopher Kilian, a materials science and engineering professor, says:

“This is really the first time that it’s been demonstrated that you can use a rapid methodology like this to spatially define cancer cells and macrophages. That’s important, because once you have that architecture, then you can ask fundamental biological questions.”

The questions, he notes, can range from basic ones such as how do the macrophages signal to the breast cells, to more sophisticated ones, such as can we use drugs to disrupt that signaling?

The method can create a synthetic environment “with a simple concentric flow device in a single step” in around 15 minutes. The environment accurately mimics the sizes and shapes of the microenvironment inside the tissue being investigated and offers a “range of geometric architectures,” note the authors.

The team believes the tool will not only help scientists do better research, but it will also help drug developers make and test drugs more effectively.

The material is better than the ones drug developers currently use to test how their products affect cells. For instance, they cannot accurately replicate the 3D nature of tiny networks of blood vessels that carry the drugs in tissue. The team’s new material can make network shapes that range from straight to snake-like, depending on the specified tissue.

“The microenvironment actually has a significant effect on how the cells respond to a drug,” notes first author and graduate student Joshua Grolman. “These companies might have the next big drug, but they might not know it.”

The team also foresees the new tool as a rapid means to match the best treatment to the patient. Prof. Kilian describes a potential future scenario:

A patient goes in and finds out they’ve been diagnosed with some sort of solid tumor. You take a biopsy of those cells, you put it into this device, grow them and see how they respond to different treatments.”

Earlier this year, Medical News Today learned how biodegradable artificial blood vessels performed well in a study where they were implanted in rats. The artificial blood vessels were made from a new biomaterial that is much more compatible with body tissue. As the blood vessels become populated with live cells, the biomaterial dissolves, and new, live tissue takes over.