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Mimicking the human ‘microenvironment’ to uncover new ways to stop breast cancer in its tracks

Dr Peng Liu

University of Aberdeen

Animals to be replaced: mice, rabbits and birds



Thanks to research, the number of people surviving cancer is improving and has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK. However, the number of people with cancer incidence is still rising so it’s vital that we accelerate research progress to overcome this devastating disease. Every four minutes, someone in the UK is still dying from cancer – that’s around 167,000 people each year.

Angiogenesis is a normal process where new blood vessels sprout from existing ones, and is vital for growth and development and for healing wounds. Tumours can hijack this process, causing more blood vessels to sprout, enabling cancer cells to metastasise (spread into the body through blood) to bones and vital organs. This makes the cancer much more difficult to successfully treat.

Drugs to block angiogenesis and halt the spread of cancer have been developed but they don’t always work well. The missing clues to their success are thought to be held in what’s known as the tumour ‘microenvironment’. This is the 3D network of cells, proteins and molecules, that surround, support and control cancer cells. Certain components of this microenvironment are thought to cause angiogenesis to speed up or slow down, but scientists don’t yet know which ones are the key players.

Using animals to study angiogenesis is still viewed as the gold standard, with over 19,000 animals used in this research over the last ten years. The heavy price that animals are paying however, is also impeding progress in treatments for people with cancer. This is because the tumour microenvironment is uniquely human and is very different in animals. New, more human-relevant techniques to study it and halt angiogenesis are urgently needed to save more lives from cancer and end animal suffering.

Dr Peng Liu, at the University of Aberdeen, is growing cells donated from patients on micro-engineered, transparent plastic chips, each equipped with their own blood supply. This is enabling him to study the cells and molecules in the human tumour microenvironment in real time, mimicking more closely, what happens in people. He’s looking in particular at cells called cancer-associated fibroblasts, which have been implicated in breast cancer progression. Dr Liu is also carrying out genetic manipulation to test if particular genes cause angiogenesis.

This revolutionary, human-relevant approach could advance the way we study cancer, offering new and important insights into the tumour microenvironment and paving the way for new drugs to block angiogenesis. This could have a huge impact on saving lives from cancer and ending animal suffering.