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Microchip Mimicry: a New Means of Cancer Study

Sep 24, 2014 04:55 PM EDT

A new microchip has been developed that can simulate the "microenvironment" of tumor growth in a living body. While it may seem far-fetched that a synthetic technology can mimic the conditions of a purely natural disease, researchers are claiming that is perfect for studying the effectiveness of experimental nanoparticle treatments.

For decades, experts have been looking into cancer therapies that target tumor growth specifically, without affecting the rest of the human body in any way. Past therapies have suggested that treatments can be guided to target only cancerous cells using stem cells, modified viruses, and even beams of light.

One method of targeted cancer treatment currently being investigated involves the use of nanoparticles tiny enough to pass through the pores of blood vessels without affecting them.

Because healthy blood cells have uniform pores, the particles should have no problem passing right through them. However, cancerous cells are often irregular and misshapen, allowing designer nanoparticles to slap on and attack.

A study recently published in the Journal of Controlled Release details how, while this technology is promising, it is difficult to study complex delivery systems without seeing them function in the complicated environment of a living body. And, of course, no scientist plans to pump particles in their earliest experimental stages into the body of a cancer patient.

It is the hope that the new microchip can serve as the ideal observational environment they need. A team of engineers at Perdue University designed the 1.8-inch squares to contain "microfluidic" channels in which tumor cells and endothelial cells are cultured. The chip also boasts the same sponge material made of collagen that can be found between cells in living tissue.

According to the university, "studies using cancer cells in petri plates exclude the complex microenvironment surrounding tumors, and research with animals does not show precisely how proposed therapies might work in people."

Bumsoo Han, a mechanical engineer involved in the project, says that the chip offers an alternative and ideal way to observe how experimental treatments function in cancer cell environments.

Eventually, the devices might even be used to grow tumor cells from patients, gauging the effectiveness of specific drugs in specific people.

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