US breakthrough in live cancer cells
20 December 2011, 11:04
Washington - US researchers said on Monday they have
discovered how to keep tumour cells alive in the lab, generating buzz
in the scientific community about a potential breakthrough that could
transform cancer treatment.
Until now, scientists have been
unable to make cancer cells thrive for very long in the laboratory in a
condition that resembles the way they look and act in the body. Doctors
have largely relied on biopsied tissue that is frozen or set in wax to
diagnose and recommend treatment.
The advance has sparked new
hope that someday doctors may be able to test a host of cancer-killing
drugs on a person's own tumour cells in the lab, before returning to the
patient with a therapy that is likely to be a good match.
would really be the ultimate in personalised medicine," said lead author
Richard Schlegel, chair of the department of pathology at Georgetown
University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Centre.
would be exactly from their tissues. We would get normal tissue and
tumour tissue from a particular patient and specifically match up their
therapies," Schlegel said.
"We are really excited about the possibilities of testing what we can do with this."
method, described in the online edition of the American Journal of
Pathology, borrows on a simple method used in stem cell research,
Lung, breast, prostate and colon cancers were kept
alive for up to two years using the technique, which combines fibroblast
feeder cells to keep cells alive and a Rho kinase (Rock) inhibitor that
allows them to reproduce.
When treated with the duo, both cancer
and normal cells reverted to a "stem-like state", Schlegel said,
allowing researchers to compare the living cells directly for the first
The two elements have previously been used separately in
stem cell research, according to Yale University pathology professor
David Rimm, who wrote a commentary that accompanies the article.
individual technique was new, as far as I know. It was in some sense a
very clever combination that led to this success," Rimm said.
cautioned that more labs need to show they can do it too, and that
attempts to try different therapies to kill the cancer cells are just
"speculation" now, but described the initial results as "pretty
"One of my senior scientists went down to Georgetown
for a week and she got it to work. She got pancreatic cells to work,
which is impossible. Even they were having trouble with that one," he
"So that just further served to stoke my enthusiasm, rather than generate scepticism."
Cause of death
other scientists can replicate the technique - and three university
labs in the US are already working on it - the advance could herald a
long-awaited transformation in the way cancer cells are studied.
study was published after two years of research in collaboration with
National Institutes of Health scientists and was funded by the NIH, the
Department of Defence, Georgetown University and the National Cancer
"A tumour from one patient is different from a cancer
from another patient, even though they appear to be the same under a
pathologist's microscope, and really that is one important reason why so
many clinical trials fail," said Marc Symons, investigator at the
Centre for Oncology and Cell Biology at The Feinstein Institute for
Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.
"I think it is fair to
say this may revolutionise the way we think of cancer treatment," added
Symons, who was not involved in the study.
Cancer is the leading
cause of death in the world, killing 7.6 million people in 2008
according to the latest data from the World Health Organisation.
Friedman, who works in the department of pathology at St Luke's
Roosevelt Hospital, said the real gain for patients could be reducing
the harmful effects of chemotherapy that may not be suited for various
"This would be a tremendous benefit for the patient
because you would be minimising toxicity while maximising the benefit of
the treatment," said Friedman, who was not part of the study.
Anderson, of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, was
one of the scientists who recently completed training in the method at
Georgetown. She said the process took three days to learn.
actually surprisingly straightforward... I am optimistic about it but
we have to confirm whether or not the cells that are growing are really
going to be the things we want to be able to study," she said.
"But I think it is pretty exciting."