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Developing humanised organ-chip systems to investigate the spread of breast cancer

Professor Valerie Speirs and PhD student Celia Rodriguez at Aberdeen University, are developing a humanised organ-chip system to predict the likelihood of different types of breast cancer spreading. This would provide a window to eliminate the disease early, before it invades other tissues and organs, potentially saving many patients’ lives. 

The impact of the spread breast cancer 

1 in 7 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime

1 in 7 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime

Each year, around 685,000 people worldwide and 11,500 people in the UK lose their lives to breast cancer. Survival is improving, with the number of breast cancer deaths falling by around 40% cent since the 1970s. If caught at its earliest stage, before the cancer spreads (metastatic cancer), over 98%of people can survive the disease. If detected at a later stage however, the cancer has often spread to other organs such as the lungs, brain, liver or bone and patients have a much poorer prognosis with only round 25% of women surviving 5 years or more.

Breast cancer is not a single disease but instead, comprises many different subtypes. Each of these has the potential to spread to certain parts of the body.

PhD student Celia Rodriguez is working towards her doctorate at the University of Aberdeen, working alongside Valerie Speirs, Professor of Molecular Oncology. She’s developing new animal-free approaches to predict the likelihood of different types of breast cancer to spread.

Improving patient survival when cancer has spread

Animal experiments using, for example, genetically altered mice to reproduce tumours, have been the traditional way of studying cancer. The fundamental biological differences between animals and people means that the development and spread of cancer isn’t the same. Metastasis for example, is often less extensive in mice than in people.

Promising findings in animals often don’t translate to benefits for people, with around 95% of cancer drugs ultimately failing. Testing on animals is not only inhumane but is letting down cancer sufferers because scientists are missing crucial knowledge about how the disease develops and spreads as well as potential drug targets.

More humane, human-relevant, and effective ways of studying metastatic cancer are urgently needed if we are going to improve survival.

Research plan

Celia Rodriguez

Celia is developing a sophisticated organ-chip system to determine whether particular breast cancer subtypes have a preference to spread to the bone or to the liver.

This technology uses tiny amounts of fluid (microfluids) that are contained within very narrow channels on small plastic chips which enable cells to migrate in a 3D environment that mimics living tissue. She will attach a fluorescent molecule to the breast cancer cells so they can be tracked and visualised using cutting edge microscopes. The cells that migrate to bone or liver fragments can then be counted to determine which breast cancer subtypes are likely to spread to these particular organs.

Breast cancer cells flowing through the channels within the chip.

Once this organ-chip model is optimised for specific breast cancer cell types, other cells such as fibroblasts (cells important in structure and support in the tumour microenvironment) and immune cells will be introduced via a network of microchannels to better reflect the tumour microenvironment. This more complex design will show whether different cells need to interact for metastasis to happen.

Rather than using expensive fixed design, off-the-shelf options, Celia is designing and testing a range of cheaper custom-made microfluid chips, that could enable more breast cancer cells to be analysed at a time. She’ll also do some genetic analysis of the breast cancer cells to look for any genes that may be key drivers of cancer spread.

Impact of the research: benefits for humans and animals

The overarching goal of this research is to establish a fast, cheap, animal-free approach which will more effectively predict the likelihood of a patient’s breast cancer spreading. This would provide a window to eliminate the disease before it starts to grow aggressively and invade other tissues and organs. It would also replace animal testing, thereby saving many human and animal lives.


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