Novel Cell Culture Approach Could Improve Precision Cancer Treatment

A new system allows researchers to test multiple drug combinations in cultured cancer stem cells from patients.

Investigators recently developed a novel system of honeycomb-like arrays of lab-grown cancer cells, which could help lead to personalized treatments for ovarian cancer, according to a study published by Clinical Cancer Research.

The method grows hundreds of cultured cell masses—called spheroids—from patient-derived tumor cells. Each spheroid is encased in a small drop of a culturing medium and it causes cells to proliferate as it would in a living patient, according to the authors.

Once developed, the spheroids could be used to test numerous treatments to discover the optimal combination for a specific patient. This may also help researchers to stay ahead of mutations and drug resistance, according to the authors.

"Today we’re limited to 2-dimensional cells grown in bovine serum that’s derived from cows. Cells grown this way often don’t respond to medication the same way as ovarian cancer cells inside the body," said lead researcher Geeta Mehta, PhD. "Three-dimensional cultured spheroids provide a much more predictive way to test many different medications, and a way to grow many cultured cells from just a few of the patient-derived cells."

In the study, the authors added cancer drugs to the spheroids and compared the cells’ response to the response in mice models of ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is particularly aggressive since it is known to become drug resistant and metastasize to the liver, intestines, and abdomen. The authors said that the ability of ovarian cancer to adapt and resist treatments has resulted in a 70% relapse rate after surgery.

Since the approach includes hundreds of spheroids, researchers are able to test numerous combinations of drugs simultaneously and develop an optimal treatment for the patient faster, according to the study.

Although clinical use will likely not happen for many years, the authors plan to conduct additional studies. They plan to culture cells from patients planning to receive chemotherapy and administer drugs to the cells to predict treatment response, according to the study.

"This is a really important step to expedite personalized medicine for cancer patients," said senior co-author Ronald Buckanovich, MD, PhD. "The ability to take patients samples, rapidly grow them in a more physiologic manner and study their response to therapy, without using mice, will be a faster, cheaper and more humane way to rapidly test a patient’s response to dozens of therapeutics."

The authors said they plan to test treatments on other cancer cell types to better understand the role that cells play in chemotherapy resistance, according to the study.

"This gets us closer to an understanding of what treatment options work best, but it also gives us a way to study exactly what happens when a treatment fails," said study author Karen, MD, PhD. "And understanding why something doesn't work can be extremely useful as a way of developing better treatments or treatment combinations."