A 3D model of a cancerous tumour has been created by an international scientific team using a 3D printer. Eventually the model could help in the discovery of new pharmaceutical agents and shed more light on how tumours develop, spread and grow.

Scaffolding of fibrous proteins coated in cervical cancer cells makes up the realistic 3D model.

Created from alginate, gelatin, and fibrin, a 10mm by 10mm grid structure mimics the fibrous proteins that make up the extracellular matrix of a tumour. The grid structure is coated in Hela cells. These are a unique, so-called immortal, cell line that originally stemmed from Henrietta Lacks, a 1951 cervical cancer patient.

The emergence of 3D printing opens up the possibility of providing a more realistic portrayal of the environment around a tumour. As the authors write in the paper’s abstract:

“3D printing has evolved into a versatile technology for fabricating tissue-engineered constructs with spatially controlled cells and biomaterial distribution to allow biomimicking of in vivo tissues."

By comparing results from their 3D model with results from a 2D model, the team confirmed this.

Working Around Clinical Trials

A clinical trial is currently the most best way of studying tumours. But ethical and safety limitations make it challenging for such studies to be carried out on a wide scale.

To work around those contraints, two-dimensional models consisting of a single layer of cells are created to represent the physiological environment of tumours and test anti-cancer drugs realistically.

With the three dimensional model, after testing if the cells remained viable following the printing, the researchers examined how the cells expressed a specific set of proteins that help tumours spread, how they proliferated, and how resistant the cells were to anti-cancer drugs.

90% of the cancer cells remained viable (alive) after the printing process, it was found.

Additionally, the 3D model shared more similarities with a tumour than 2D models, including a better proliferation rate, higher protein expression and higher resistance to anti-cancer drugs.

Scalable and Versatile

Lead author Professor Wei Sun of Tsinghua University and Drexel University, said:

“We have provided a scalable and versatile 3D cancer model that shows a greater resemblance to natural cancer than 2D cultured cancer cells."

The researchers now are attempting to understand cell to cell and cell to substrate communication and immune responses for their printed tumour-like models.

“With further understanding of these 3D models, we plan to use them to study the development, invasion, metastasis and treatment of cancer using specific cancer cells from patients,” says Professor Sun. “We can also use these models to test the efficacy and safety of new cancer treatment therapies and cancer drugs."


Liliang Ouyang et al 2015 3D printing of HEK 293FT cell-laden hydrogel into macroporous constructs with high cell viability and normal biological functions Biofabrication 7 015010. doi:10.1088/1758-5090/7/1/015010

Photo: /flickr

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