To gain better insights into the biology of brain tumors, scientists at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh plan to 3D print a tumor-like construct. Malignant brain tumors are responsible for claiming up to 5000 lives each year in the UK. The prognosis for such brain tumors is poor and the treatment options are extremely limited as well.
Dr. Nicholas Leslie, a tumor biologist at the University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering has been working on understanding brain tumors for a number of years now. He has a prolific record of publications on various aspects of brain tumors as well. His lab as even successfully developed several types of “brain tumor in a laboratory” to study brain tumors and test drugs to treat them, including taking brain tumor stem cells from patients. However, what happens with almost every biological system holds true for brain tumors as well. If they are grown in the lab, they behave very differently from the way they do in reality.
To overcome this caveat, Dr. Leslie decided to collaborate with Dr. Will Shu, a 3D printing expert to carry out the pioneering work, which has just been funded by The Brain Tumour Charity. Now the Heriot-Watt team will 3D print brain tumour (glioma) stem cells and other types of cells isolated from patients’ brain tumors, to recreate tumor-like constructs which should give much closer results to human tumors and reduce the current dependence on animal testing.
Additive manufacturing, otherwise known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, is driving major innovations in many areas, such as engineering, manufacturing, art, education and medicine. Recent advances have enabled 3D printing of biocompatible materials, cells and supporting components into complex 3D functional living tissues. A printable organ is an artificially constructed device designed for organ replacement, produced using 3D printing techniques. 3D bioprinting is being applied to regenerative medicine to address the need for tissues and organs suitable for transplantation.
Compared with non-biological printing, 3D bioprinting involves additional complexities, such as the choice of materials, cell types, growth and differentiation factors, and technical challenges related to the sensitivities of living cells and the construction of tissues. Addressing these complexities requires the integration of technologies from the fields of engineering, biomaterials science, cell biology, physics and medicine. 3D bioprinting has already been used for the generation and transplantation of several tissues, including multilayered skin, bone, vascular grafts, tracheal splints, heart tissue and cartilaginous structures. Other applications include developing high-throughput 3D-bioprinted tissue models for research, drug discovery and toxicology.
3D printing was first described in 1986 by Charles W. Hull. In his method, which he named ‘stereolithography‘, thin layers of a material that can be cured with ultraviolet light were sequentially printed in layers to form a solid 3D structure. The next step was 3D bioprinting as a form of tissue engineering, made possible by recent advances in 3D printing technology, cell biology and materials science. A related development was the application of 3D printing to produce medical devices such as stents and splints for use in the clinic. In 3D bioprinting, layer-by-layer precise positioning of biological materials, biochemicals and living cells, with spatial control of the placement of functional components, is used to fabricate 3D structures. However, the central challenge is to reproduce the complex micro-architecture of extracellular matrix (ECM) components and multiple cell types in sufficient resolution to recapitulate biological function.
Dr. Nicholas Leslie said “We have developed a novel 3D printing technique to print brain tumour cells for the first time, cells that continue to grow rapidly, more closely mimicking the growth of these aggressive tumors in real life.
“Our goal is that this should provide a new way of testing drugs to treat brain tumors, leading to new treatments and speeding up the process by which new drugs become available to patients.”