Even though cancer cells grow out of control in the body, they are hard to keep alive in the lab. That makes it really difficult for researchers to understand how they work, and to test the efficacy of cancer-fighting treatments. Now an international team of scientists has been able to recreate a patient’s gut using cancer cells, according to a study published in the journal Cell.
To make the miniature versions of patients’ colons, the researchers extracted tumor cells from patients with colorectal cancer and, using the right combination of growth media and chemicals, were able to samples with the same structure as the real thing, just .1 millimeter in diameter. Previous studies had shown that organoids grown in this way can survive in the lab for years and are not damaged by freezing and thawing. The technique is also highly efficient—of the 27 patient samples taken, 90 percent of them successfully grew into organoids in the lab.
This technique could help researchers to test possible treatments on tumors to find the best one for an individual tumor and patient, called personalized or precision medicine. If it becomes widespread, this method could improve upon others currently used to test cancer treatments, which involve creating immortal cells (such as HeLa) or transplanting human cancer cells into mice, because the cancer cells in this technique don’t develop as many mutations outside the body that may change how drugs affect them, and they would also be easier to maintain.
The tiny colons are already being used in two clinical trials, which will help determine their usefulness in future studies.