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Miniaturizing Cancer
on a Chip
Engineers are working with biologists to revolutionize the study of cancer, disease progression
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Our miniaturized, personalized approach to studying cancer, one patient at a time, could reduce the current trial-and-error approach to treatment, through better understanding of how a normal cell turns into a cancer cell, and why some people respond to treatments while others do not.
Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD
University Professor, Mikati Foundation
Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine, and Professor of Dental Medicine at Columbia University
The Cancer on a Chip model “miniaturizes” cancer in the human body, allowing researchers to test numerous drugs quickly, and holds promise for personalizing patients’ treatment plans to their unique cancer types.
The unpredictability of how a cancer will behave from one patient to the next has been a defining challenge in developing effective treatments. There has been a long-standing need to create better models of human cancers that can mimic their complexities, which is where Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, has arrived at a breakthrough.
In creating her “Cancer on a Chip” model, Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic now sits at the intersection of biology, engineering, and medicine, utilizing tissue engineering to uncover the biology of cancer metastasis, one of the most pressing challenges in cancer research.
Tissue engineering is a relatively simple concept. If you can create an environment that mimics what a human cell would inhabit inside our bodies, it allows you to study that cell’s normal functions in an external setting. These environments are provided on “chips,” devices about the size of a credit card, that hold a millimeter sized piece of human tissue and can replicate the function of the specific organ that tissue comes from. In Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic's research, co-developed with researchers Alan Chramiec and Diogo Teles, these chips hold tumors and can model how a cancer will spread to healthy tissues or respond to a specific drug or treatment. To study cancer progression and treatment response in a specific patient, all that is needed is a small sample of that patient's tumor.
One patient at a time, this personalized approach is working to move beyond the conventional trial-and-error model of treatment. It could hold the answers to some of the largest questions in cancer research, namely, how does a normal cell turn into a cancer cell, and why do some people respond to treatments while others do not? The “Cancer on a Chip” model represents the next step forward, where clinicians, engineers, and researchers step out of their siloed disciplines and begin working together towards multidisciplinary solutions. Ask Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic, and she’ll tell you that within those collaborations we are making our way towards solving cancer.