3D printing brain tumours to improve treatment

Scientists at a Scottish university plan to 3D print tumour-like constructs to better understand the biology of malignant brain tumours that kill around 5,000 people each year in the UK.

Dr Nicholas Leslie, a tumour biologist at Heriot-Watt University's Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering is working with Dr Will Shu, a 3D printing expert to carry out the pioneering work, which has just been funded by The Brain Tumour Charity.

Researchers have already developed several types of 'brain tumour in a laboratory' to study such tumours and particularly to test drugs to treat them, including taking brain tumour stem cells from patients.

However, if they are simply grown in the lab, on a plastic dish under liquid medium they behave very differently from the way they do in a real tumour, because a cell's behaviour depends on its environment and it isn't possible to provide the same tumour-like environments in the lab.

Now the Heriot-Watt team will 3D print brain tumour (glioma) stem cells and other types of cells isolated from patients' brain tumours, through a novel technique they have developed.

This will recreate tumour-like constructs with a dense mixture of matrix proteins and diverse neighbouring cells, that will continue to grow rapidly as tumours do in real life. This should give much closer results to human tumours and reduce the current dependence on animal testing.

Their goal is that their technology will allow the fast, reproducible manufacture of tumour-like constructs for drug testing and also answer important questions in tumour biology.

Speaking about the research project, Dr Leslie said "We have developed a novel 3D printing technique to print brain tumour cells for the first time, cells that continue to grow rapidly, more closely mimicking the growth of these aggressive tumours in real life.

"Our goal is that this should provide a new way of testing drugs to treat brain tumours, leading to new treatments and speeding up the process by which new drugs become available to patients."

The research will focus almost exclusively on malignant tumours, specifically glioblastoma. The research will bring together cancer biologists, engineers and clinicians to apply the novel 3D bio-printing technology to provide more realistic models for drug testing and research into glioma (tumour) biology.

Photo copyright Heriot-Watt University