New technology is enabling cancer scientists to look at individual cells, potentially leading to personalised treatments, research suggests.
The method developed at University College London (UCL) allows researchers to analyse the behaviour of millions of different cells living inside lab-grown tumours.
The research, published in Nature Methods and funded by Cancer Research UK, provides new insight into how mutated cancer cells “mimic the growth signals” normally expressed by healthy cells.
This allows them to grow unchecked.
Corresponding author, Dr Chris Tape of UCL’s Cancer Institute, said: “Our new technology allows us to simultaneously measure the behaviour of cancer cells, healthy cells, and immune cells from mini-tumours.
“This new technique revealed that mutations in cancer cells mimic the growth signals normally provided by cells in the healthy tissue microenvironment.
“In healthy tissues, signals from the environment are tightly controlled so the tissue doesn’t grow too fast.
“Unfortunately in cancer, mutations that mimic microenvironment signals are constantly switched on – allowing the cancer to grow unchecked.
“The new technology developed at UCL enabled scientists to observe this phenomenon in minute detail.”
Globally, researchers can now study cancer using mini-tumours, known as “organoids”, which are grown by embedding cancer stem cells in collagen in the lab.
Until now, most methods to study these mini-tumours have involved grinding up all the cells and analysing the mixture.
This limits scientists’ ability to assess how individual cells behave.
But now researchers have developed a new technique to prepare cells for analysis on a mass spectrometer.
They say this technological breakthrough means that, for the first time, they can study how cancer cells interact with any cell type using mini-tumour models.
Moving forward, UCL scientists plan to use this technology to study how tumours from individual patients can uniquely communicate with healthy cells and the immune system.
Dr Tape explained: “By understanding how mini-tumours function at the single-cell level, this new technology will enable researchers to identify new ways to treat an individual’s cancer.”
He added that in future they expect an individual patient will have mini-tumours grown as living biopsies alongside their clinical treatment.
Drugs will be tested on the mini-tumours to inform how the patient’s individual tumour should be treated.