Breast tissue growing in the new hydrogel

New hydrogel technology has promise in breast cancer modelling

In science, a model is used as a representation of something in the real world, so that ideas and concepts may be tested out. Models have a variety uses, but in cancer biology they are often popular as they can help to mimic the complex environment seen in human   disease. Models are used to explore the effects of new drugs, understand genetic or cellular pathways on tumour development or predict the potential response of a patients cancer.

It’s in a researcher’s best interest to create a model that is as faithful to the real world as possible, so that the outcomes are accurate and can translate successfully into humans. However, the go-to models to recapitulate human cells in a lab use, a protein matrix extracted from mouse tumours, which is used to resemble the extracellular environment found human tumours. But the extent to which mouse matrix can be used is limited by its fixed extracellular matrix components, which are often not representative of the human tissue, and the inability to add or remove the individual extracellular components to explore the influence these on tumour growth.

Dr Gillian Farnie, Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculorskeletal Sciences, has focused her work on developing new models that allow human breast cancer cells to be grown and researched, whilst overcoming these limitations.

A recent publication in Matrix Biology, funded by the NC3Rs, outlines a new peptide hydrogel developed by the Farnie group in collaboration with Prof Merry (University of Nottingham).  This new peptide hydrogel offers the added benefit of being customisable, by incorporating or removing specific extracellular matrix components that researchers want to test, to better understand their influence on cancer cells. It therefore allows full control over the biochemical and physical properties of the model, providing researchers with the opportunity to more accurately adapt the model to the real-life environment of human breast tumour.

The new technology’s applications are incredibly widespread and promising. For example, certain extracellular matrix proteins, when found in high quantities in a tumour, can often be associated with a poorer prognosis for a patient. Researchers may want to understand if this is a simple correlation, or if the proteins are assisting the cancer in some way, such as promoting treatment resistance. The ability to remove these proteins from a cancer model and test the response, whilst remaining faithful and accurate to human cells, is incredibly useful and can allow us to discover therapeutic targets.

Dr Gillian Farnie is currently working with the breast cancer research community to apply this new technology in multiple breast tumour research projects. The hydrogel’s applications are not limited to just matrix biology, but also in investigating areas such as the biological significance of blood vessel supply to tumours or even other cancer types outside the breast.

This new hydrogel provides an opportunity to better understand the individual influences of the extracellular matrix, mechanical properties and cell-cell interactions on breast cancer and other disease. It is an open and reproducible model that Dr Farnie is currently publishing a detailed methodology in JOVE, so that more cancer researchers can have access to the new technology.

About this research

Dr Gillian Farnie is based in the Botnar Research Centre, Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences.  Her research focuses on the development of patient derived pre-clinical breast cancer models that are used to examine mechanisms of inherent and induced therapy resistance, interrogating both intra-tumour heterogeneity (cancer stem cells) and the tumour microenvironment (ECM, Stroma, Immune cells).