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£2million project aims to revolutionise the study of cancer cells in the lab

Researchers from Queen Mary, University of London have been awarded a €2.43million grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for a project which aims to revolutionise the field of cancer cell research by using bioengineering techniques to grow the first complex 3-dimensional human ‘tumour microenvironment’ in the laboratory.

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Mouse model of ovarian cancer showing cancer cells in green, immune cells in pink and blood vessels in red
Mouse model of ovarian cancer showing cancer cells in green, immune cells in pink and blood vessels in red

Even at their earliest stages, human cancers are more than just malignant cells. Other cells and chemicals that normally support and protect the body are co-opted by the malignant cancer cells to actually help them grow and spread.

Research is increasingly pointing to the importance of not just targeting the malignant cancer cells but also this wider ‘tumour microenvironment’ for long-term cancer treatment.

In the CANBUILD project the multi-disciplinary team of scientists will be using the latest advances in tissue engineering, biomechanics, imaging and stem cell biology which they believe will make it possible to engineer, for the first time, a complex 3-dimensional human tumour in which the different cell types of the tumour microenvironment will communicate, evolve and grow in vitro(outside the body, in the laboratory).

The CANBUILD goal is to recreate the tumour microenvironment of human high-grade serious ovarian cancer, the subtype that leads to 70 per cent of all ovarian cancer deaths, but the research may have implications for several other cancers as well.

The vision is that this project will replace inadequate techniques where human cancer cells are grown in isolation on plastic surfaces. Success in the CANBUILD project may also provide better ways of testing new drugs that target the human tumour microenvironment.

Professor Fran Balkwill , from the Barts Cancer Institute, is Principal Investigator on the CANBUILD project. Professor Balkwill said: “About half the cells in a tumour are not cancer cells, but ‘healthy’ cells such as immune cells and fibroblasts which the cancer is somehow corrupting to help it grow and spread.

“It seems logical that the best long-term treatments will come from combining both therapies that target the cancer cells with something aimed at the wider tumour microenvironment which, while not cancerous cells themselves, are supporting the cancer’s growth.

“Growing an in vitromodel which contains all these types of cells will allow us to watch how the cells communicate and how the tumour grows, teaching us more about what is going on in this complex system and hopefully giving us a model we can test new drugs on.”

The five-year research plan involves:

       •   ‘Deconstruction’ of the human ovarian cancer tumour microenvironment

       •   Constructing the artificial scaffold, optimising growth of different cell types, and assembling the model

       •   Comparison of the model to fresh human tissue

       •   Investigating the roles of individual cells

       •   Testing new treatments that target the tumour microenvironment

The ERC funding will also allow the team to communicate their research via Centre of the Cell, Queen Mary’s award-winning science education centre, online resource, widening participation and outreach project.


The CANBUILD Team at Queen Mary, University of London

Barts Cancer Institute

Professor Frances Balkwill

Dr Thorsten Hagemann

Dr Michelle Lockley

William Harvey Research Institute

Professor SussanNourshargh

Blizard Institute

Dr John Connelly

Professor Ian MacKenzie

School of Engineering and Materials Science

Professor Martin Knight


CANBUILD collaborators

Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute

Dr James Brenton

EcolePolytechniqueFédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Dr Jeff Hubbell

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