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New project explores novel cancer treatment therapies using artificial tissue

Pancreatic cancer patients currently face a five-year survival rate of only seven per cent, but a new technique based on advanced biomaterials could help improve outcomes by enabling cancer treatments to be evaluated more accurately.

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Led by Dr Eirini Velliou and Dr Jian Liu of the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, the year-long research project began in August 2017 with funding from the University, EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and the Royal Society.

In the project, an artificial tissue for modelling cancer ‘in vitro’ (in the lab) is used to evaluate novel drug delivery systems. The researchers will plant human tissue – made up of healthy tissue and some cancerous cells – in an advanced ‘bioreactor’ to grow, and cancer-treating drugs will then be introduced via novel materials in the bioreactor. Initially focused on pancreatic cancer, this technique could offer a far more robust method of evaluating cancer treatments than flask-based experiments, and could even enable treatment to be personalised down to the individual patient by using their own cells to grow tissue. It would also reduce the need for animal testing.

The advanced artificial tissue created at Surrey, which is the basis for the project, is continually being upgraded further with additional features to enable it to simulate human responses more accurately – for example the reactor is now able to mimic the complex network of proteins and cells which are present around a tumour. This artificial tissue is an optimal platform to test the efficacy of novel drug delivery systems developed by Dr Jian Liu.

Dr Velliou explained: “What we are doing is adding drugs in a carrier which chemically selects the tumour cells and binds on to those cells. This has the potential to help reduce side effects in healthy tissues, and enables us to deliver a higher drug dosage safely and at lower cost, thereby enabling more efficient therapy.”

Once the technique is validated, the next step for the research team will be to work with pharmaceutical companies to explore its potential for drug testing.

The project is part of the work of the Bioprocess and Biochemical Engineering group (BioProChem), led by Dr Velliou, which focuses on studying how cells react differently when they are exposed to ‘non-optimal’ environments. Read more about research by the BioProChem group.

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