NUS team's lab-grown tumours help drug testing

SINGAPORE - Cancer scientists have worked out how to grow man-made tumours in the lab - using human cells attached to a frame of silk strands. The "highly realistic" model can be used to test drugs designed to fight the disease, say the researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

They add that it is more effective than the traditional cell cultures on which cancer treatments are tested. This is because it is much better at replicating conditions in the body. It also allows the study of how cancerous cells interact with neighbouring ones.

The tumour is grown on a 5mm-wide scaffold made of silk threads. These are dissolved and purified before the solution is freeze-dried. Cancer cells are then added, which attach themselves to the sponge-like material and grow on it.

The team is now filing for a patent, said Dr Pamela Tan of the NUS bioengineering department.

They hope the silk model will help other researchers to select drugs that are more likely to be successful during clinical trials.

The researchers carried out a study that showed treatments tested on the tumour proved far less effective than those tested using the conventional method. They said this showed the traditional technique was not as effective as it did not give such an accurate picture of the drug's usefulness.

The tumour also gives results similar to those in animal experiments - which could mean fewer living creatures need to be used. But some animal testing may still be needed as the silk structure does not have blood vessels or the immune response that is present in actual cancer cells.

"Regardless, (the man-made tumours) provide a potentially powerful toolbox for a myriad of new applications," said Dr Tan.

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