Transforming cancer research with Corning's bioprinter


How scientists are mimicking tumors to advance precision medicine.

Treat cancer? Mimic tumors? Cancer researchers in precision medicine labs want to do both.

These research scientists actually grow mini tumors from cells extracted from cancer patients – all in an attempt to find more effective treatments. The Corning® Matribot® Bioprinter may improve the way that’s done.

The Corning® Matribot® bioprinter is a powerful tool that scientists can use to potentially fast-track critical life sciences research in areas like tissue engineering, regenerative and precision medicine.

Hui-Hsuan (Helen) Kuo is a Ph.D. student working with a team of such scientists. Precision medicine labs like hers use specific information about a person's tumor to help make a diagnosis, plan treatment, find out how well treatment is working, or make a prognosis.

She explains that creating these patient-derived tumor “organoids” (a group of cells generated in a research lab to mimic the cancer being studied) is essential to advancing personalized medicine and improving individual outcomes.

“If I have colon cancer and my friend also has colon cancer, that doesn't mean that our cancer is the same,” says Helen. “It depends on the mutation of the genes and how it impacts our own biological differences. This is why we are growing tumor replicas from individual patients, to help understand how their specific cancer might respond to various drug treatments in an in vitro model, outside of the body, before administering them to the patient. Essentially, we are trying to determine which drugs have the best chance of success.”

Organoids are three-dimensional models generated from stem cells that represent some of the key features of a human organ for research purposes.

But replicating cancerous tissue – or any tissue, for that matter – outside the human body is a complicated task. It requires building a sophisticated 3D model, which can be time consuming. With a cancer diagnosis, time is a luxury that patients do not have. Researchers like Helen are always looking for ways to grow organoids more efficiently and get answers faster.

The goal of the research is to use organoid technology for precision medicine – where scientists will be able to recommend the drug therapy that performed best in the research lab to the patient's physician.

Corning’s Matribot bioprinter can help.

Traditionally, when scientists generate these organoids, many of the steps are manual and very labor intensive – leaving room for human error. With the Corning Matribot bioprinter, researchers can semi-automate several of these steps, saving precious time. The Matribot bioprinter standardizes and streamlines the process by utilizing pre-programed software than can help scientists dispense “biological inks” into precise shapes – much like standard 3D printers might print a coffee cup.

Organoid models can be generated using the popular “dome” method shown here, which can be streamlined and automated by using the Corning® Matribot® bioprinter.

“If we do it all by hand, it can be arduous because even though it's with an electric pipet controller, it still takes a lot of time and energy,” Helen says. “When we use the Matribot bioprinter, we ensure that we can precisely print in the same size and location every time, which is critical to setting up our cell environment correctly.”

Once the team has cultured a patient’s cancer cells into an organoid, they can screen drugs against it.

3D cell culture research like this is becoming more relevant and prevalent, says Elizabeth Abraham, Corning’s 3D Cell Culture market manager.

“3D cell cultures give more insight into the cell-to-cell matrix interactions that govern our body’s systems,” Elizabeth says. “Corning is among the leaders who provide advanced tools allowing researchers to make more complex and predictive 3D models to advance our understanding and treatment of diseases such as cancer.”

The technology’s potential applications continue to expand.

A scientist prepares a cell-culture experiment to be “printed.”

Corning scientist Hilary Sherman recently recreated a sample of human skin with the Matribot bioprinter, building keratinocytes and fibroblasts—two skin cell types critical to the skin's repair and regeneration process—to make new flesh. She presented her findings at the Corning-sponsored 3D Cell Culture Summit in September in New York City, where scientists, including Helen, gathered to share their research and learn from others in the field.

“As leaders in this space, we feel it’s our responsibility to bring other scientific leaders together at events like the 3D Summit to continue pushing the boundaries of disease modeling and drug screening for critical areas like cancer research,” says Elizabeth.

As more data emerges, scientists’ findings will have long-reaching implications for health outcomes and eventually help treat more than one patient at a time. Cancer researchers can sequence a complete set of DNA as part of their 3D cell culture work. They note mutations, along with the types of cancers associated with those mutations, and the drugs that proved most effective in combatting the disease. The cells will be stored in a biobank, where the 3D cultures can be used for future research. All that information becomes part of a research database and resources that will help serve more patients more quickly down the road.

Looking ahead, Helen is optimistic.

“We are going to find a better way to treat cancer,” Helen says. “Cancer is a really difficult disease. It changes all the time. It's very smart. But with our precision medicine approach, we are discovering better ways to fight it and extend the survival time of patients.”

Want to learn more? Check out this video featuring interviews with precision medicine researchers.