Paolo Rossi Castelli 9 September 2021 7 min read

Personalised oncological treatment with a special ‘sandwich’

A new device developed in the United States allows simulation of the effect of oncological treatment for various types of cancers and the selection of the most effective for each patient.

Laboratory experiments, first and foremost, must be carried out to understand whether and in what conditions a tumour may respond to a certain type of treatment.

However, to ensure that these are reliable, the test conditions must be as similar as possible to the real conditions (anything but simple, given the complexity of the human body).

This is why three-dimensional models, as well as two-dimensional ones (like those of common culture plates where the cells grow attached to the bottom in thin layers), have been under development for some time.

One of these models, devised by researchers at the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy (New York State), could now allow a real step forward to be made, particularly in immunotherapy against tumours, as it enables the effectiveness of a certain drug to be assessed in just a few hours, taking into consideration a series of variables such as the existence of cells from the immune system in the micro-environment and the features of a specific type of cancer. In other words, it enables treatment to be calibrated based on the ‘personal’ features of the individual patient and their disease.

3D simulations

As the researchers explain in the scientific periodical Communications Biology from the Nature group, the device is like a sort of small plastic sandwich the size of a microscope slide. There are 330 minuscule pillars on one side where a gel-like matrix is placed, simulating the micro-environment of the tissues where tumours grow. In this way, the cancer cells extracted in a biopsy and deposited in the gel can grow in three dimensions and take on a realistic, spheroid shape, just as they would in the body.

When ready, they are turned upside-down and put into contact with the other part of the sandwich. On this side, there are 330 micro-wells (small holes), where immune system cells such as Natural Killers (NKs), specialised in hunting out cancer cells, can be added. NK cells stay ‘in suspension’ and flow as they would do, untied, in the body.

A situation similar to the real one is produced in this way, where the tumour cells grow in a hostile environment, surrounded by immune system elements trying to fight them. Antibodies can be added, like those used for immunotherapy, or drugs, to check whether they have an effect or not.

Some surprises

In the specific case, two lines of breast cancer and a pancreatic tumour were studied, all three especially resistant to drugs, and some unexpected information on the best ‘formula’ came out.

For example, according to the researchers, the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel has not seemed very effective on its own (although it is in the classic, two-dimensional tests) but, with NK cells, it is. The same procedure can be used with other drugs, adding various ‘variables’ to the immune system.

If the devices are perfected and ‘consolidated’ through new research, platforms like this will enable tumour therapy to be ‘targeted’ based on the features of the individual patient, thus avoiding the start of treatment that would not be effective.

Deepak Vashishth, director of CBIS, confirmed, “This platform brings researchers closer to personalised medicine. The research, conducted by Jonathan Dordick, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and his group, is an excellent example of how new approaches to ‘co-operation’ between engineering and life sciences can be developed to improve oncological treatment.” It should be remembered that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is one of the oldest American universities in the technological research sector.


Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.