4 applications of 3D Bioprinting in cancer modelling


Cancer is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity worldwide. Whilst the pharmaceutical industry has made relevant improvements in cancer therapies over the last decade, it remains a challenge to develop anticancer drugs and clinical practices effectively. Traditionally, cancer is modeled using 2D cell cultures and in animals. Although these models have helped develop our understanding of the disease, they often fail to accurately replicate human behaviours. 3D bioprinting is a novel technology which has the potential to offer solutions to the challenges of mimicking the complex in vivo tumor microenvironment with high accuracy. Using this technology scientists can combine biomaterials with patient-derived cells to generate more complex 3D models and bridge the gap between traditional cell culture and in vivo animal models. Furthermore, they can possibly even replace animal models in the case of personalized medicine.

Applications of bioprinted cancer models:

1.     Tumor angiogenesis

One of the main difficulties in engineering 3D cancer models is the lack of vascular networks, which play a key role in transporting nutrients and oxygen to cells, and ultimately cancer progression. Bioprinting has a unique advantage to integrate the vasculature with tumor models, through the printing of microchannels within hydrogel matrices. Indeed, a team led by Rice University and the University of Washington have developed a tool to 3D print complex vascular networks. These mimic the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph, and other fluids, and will be essential for not only creating artificial organs, but also for more accurate tumor modelling.

2.     Tumor microenvironment

The tumor microenvironment as a whole, containing many other components such as immune cells, cancer-associated fibroblasts, lymphocytes, and extracellular matrix molecules, is equally important. It raises issues around precise compositional and structural controls, which can be aided through 3D bioprinting. For example, a recent model of a bioprinted minibrain consisting of glioblastoma cells and macrophages has been developed to study the dynamic interactions between these two cell types. The model is based on a two-step bioprinting process in which the first print is a larger brain structure using a bioink incorporating a macrophages cell line with an empty cavity, then in the second step this space is filled with a glioblastoma cell embedded bioink. This “mini-brain” design makes it possible to remove the tumor as a whole, and to examine the effect on the remaining cells.

3.     Tumor metastasis

Through 3D bioprinting, the resulting tumor models would further enable more faithful studies on metastasis, a leading cause of cancer-associated mortality. Early studies have shown that breast cancer cells can be printed onto ex vivo cultured rat mesenteric tissues using laser assisted bioprinting to allow the study of metastasis through time-lapse imaging. This hybrid strategy can potentially help us observe both the native living tissue constructs and the deposited tumor cells, combining advantages of bioprinting with the competent in vivo tissue microenvironment.

4.     Anticancer drug development & therapeutic screening

The use of 3D printed cancer models provides a promising platform to innovate anticancer therapeutic agents. Drug development for cancer has been experiencing low success rates for decades, with over 95% of candidate drugs failing to enter the market. For this, the bioprinting is not only useful in generating physiologically relevant cancer models, but it can also allow for the construction of biomimetic models of normal tissues to create linked systems for simultaneous screening of both efficacy and side effects.


Source: T. Liu et al., 3D bioprinting for oncology applications, Journal of 3D Printing in Medicine., vol. 3, no. 2  (2019)


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