Hydrogel Used to Mimic Human Breast Tissue for Cancer Research

Gel may eventually eliminate the need for animal testing in medical research.

Gel may eventually eliminate the need for animal testing in medical research.

Scientists from the universities of Manchester and Nottingham are currently developing a gel that will mimic the properties of human breast tissue so researchers can prevent the use of lab rats in advancing cancer research.

The nearly $640,000 grant award from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) will go towards developing the gel that was originally created for stem cell research to incorporate many of the same characteristics of human breast tissue, such as proteins and sugars from the matrix surrounding the breast cells.

Currently, many studies that investigate the behavior of breast tissue samples do so in rodent models. By developing a gel to mimic human breast tissue, breast cell models can be grown in the lab and will help the researchers understand the influence of the breast matrix in breast cancer progression.

“By developing a bespoke gel which can be programmed to behave in the same way as human breast tissue we will be able to investigate how cancers are influenced by the adjacent normal cells and the non-cellular stroma without the need to use animals,” said Dr. Cathy Merry of the University of Nottingham, one of the developers of the project. “Currently non-animal tumor models poorly represent the complex environment experienced by cancer cells but the approach planned with this gel has the potential to replicate the cancer environment seen in humans.”

The gel will be produced in collaboration with The University of Manchester’s Dr. Gillian Farnie and Professor Tony Howell, who provide expertise in primary breast cell culture, ductal carcinoma in situ, and breast ECM/density.

“There is strong evidence showing the development of breast cancers is influenced by interactions between breast tissue and cells within the breast,” Dr. Farnie said. “The protein and sugar components of breast tissue are different in normal and cancer samples and these changes occur in the early stages of breast cancer development such as ductal carcinoma in-situ. Our preliminary evidence indicates that the innovative hydrogel technology will enable us to manipulate the environment of pre-cancers to determine the exact mechanism of the interactions which we believe will lead to new ways to treat and prevent breast cancers.”

In addition to replicating aspects of the complex mixture of proteins that attach to and support cells, the hydrogel will also be manipulated to mimic breast density, which is a key predictor of breast cancer recurrence and development.

“The synthetic hydrogels allow us to manipulate the matrix environment and density to measure the response of pre-cancerous breast cells,” Dr. Howell said. “The advance is that complex interactions can now be studied in a highly systematic and reproducible way. Understanding the interactions will potentially lead to new approaches to breast cancer prevention and treatment. Thankfully these experiments are now possible without animal models thus saving animals and on expense.”

Researchers predict that the advent of this hydrogel could lead to the development of other such gels that mimic the properties of other human tissues, thus ridding the need for animal testing for advancing cancer research.