A tiny microchip that mimics the spread of cancer cells. Jelle Sleeboom developed this during his Ph.D. research at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e).
In 2018, 44,770 people died of cancer in the Netherlands. It is often the case that it is not the primary tumor which is the cause of death, but rather the metastatic spread of the tumor. It’s for this reason that Sleeboom wants to use his techniques to help better understand and ultimately even prevent cancer metastasis. During his research, Sleeboom developed small chips that cancer cells think are similar to human bodies.
When cancer cells spread to other organs, it is referred to as metastasis. Doctors do not yet fully understand how metastasis occurs. This is because research into new treatments tends to focus on attacking the rapidly dividing cancer cells. More research is needed in order to prevent or treat metastasis.
Research into metastasis is problematic because it takes place on such a minuscule scale. Tumors can spread with just a few cells. This makes them difficult to track.
Sleeboom: “What makes understanding metastasis even more difficult is that cancer cells do not spread on their own, but are influenced in all kinds of ways by their environment. This environment is known as the tumor microenvironment.
Sleeboom has designed tiny microchips that are capable of mimicking the tumor microenvironment. The units work on the principle of microfluidics, i.e. the science of manipulating fluids.
These units grow cancer cells in fluid ducts and chambers. “This makes the cancer cells assume that they are in a human being,” says Sleeboom. “The main difference is that these chips exercise control over the tumor microenvironment. As a result, the effect of the various factors on cancer cells can be examined in a systematic way.” This concept is called ‘cancer-on-a-chip‘.
Influencing cancer cells
There is a lot of variation in oxygen concentration levels in the tumor microenvironment. Sleeboom studied the effect of oxygen flow on cancer cells. He showed, among other things, that a certain type of breast cancer cell is attracted by lower oxygen concentrations. “This can potentially teach us more about the behavior of cancer cells in humans,” says Sleeboom.
Among other things, Sleeboom has devised a method to surround cancer cells with a membrane. When cancer cells detach themselves from the primary tumor, they first have to break through a thin membrane. This phenomenon is known as invasion, the initial stage of metastasis. The process of metastasis can be monitored more effectively with this new method.
Sleeboom: “The techniques we have developed contribute to the further advancement of the ‘Cancer-on-a-chip’. Hopefully, this will help to better understand cancer metastasis, or perhaps even prevent it in the future.”