Associate Professor Kieran Scott: Growing 3D brain cancer organoids – the new frontier in cancer research

By Linda Music

When Associate Professor Kieran Scott goes to sleep at night, he dreams of fighting cancer… and winning. When he awakens, he goes to work, excited to be working on projects which are bringing his dreams closer to reality.

Challenges of the old approach

As Associate Professor of Oncology at Western Sydney University, Scott knows the challenges that come with the traditional approach to cancer research, particularly around the growing of cancer tumours.

He explains that traditionally, cancer research has involved the use of animal studies, mainly on mice. The first approach is to use mice which have been genetically modified or chemically-induced to grow their own tumours while the second approach is to take human tumour cells and inject/implant them into mice. In both cases, the mice are then treated with drugs to see which drugs, if any, are successful in shrinking the tumours.

“The problem with these approaches is that even though the tumour might look the same as a human cancer tumour, at the molecular level, it’s often not the same. Additionally, a problem with the second approach is, in order to grow a human cancer tumour in a mouse, you need to knock out its immune system.

“While these models of cancer are valuable and important, treating an immune-compromised mouse, which has a human cancer tumour grafted onto it, is not the same as treating a human with cancer,” he explains.

A new approach

So, what other options exist that can circumvent the problems associated with the traditional models?  It seems that 3D bioprinting might be the answer.

3D printing is not a new concept. Invented over 35 years ago, engineers have been using 3D printers to “print” a variety of tangible objects. However, it wasn’t until 2003 that the world’s first 3D bioprinter was developed, capable of printing living tissue from a “bioink” of cells.

Today, Assoc. Prof. Scott and his team are using the latest 3D bioprinting machine called RastrumTM, to grow brain cancer organoids from tumour samples obtained from CONCERT’s biobank.

Developed by scientists from University of Wollongong and University of NSW, RastrumTM provides opportunities to model real cancer cells derived from individual patient tumours.

The way that it works sounds remarkably simple.

You take cancer cells from the patient, combine them with a compound that, when you add a setting agent and then “print” the mixture in a culture dish, will form a gel in 3 dimensions. The cells can move through the gel and grow together into a 3D structure that looks more like a tumour than when you grow the same cells in 2D culture,” explains Assoc. Prof. Scott.

“We can cut up the tissue into small pieces, grow organoids from these  and then treat each organoid with a different drug and measure the response. Based on the results we’ll be able to recommend the drug that works best for the individual patient’s tumour.

“Having this new technology to grow tumour cells in 3D is a major step forward in both new drug discovery and as well as patient recovery. It allows us to bring our work in the lab a step closer to directly helping patients.” he says.

Assoc. Prof. Scott acknowledges that 3D bioprinting of cancer organoids is in its infancy and not yet clinically available. However, he is excited by the opportunities that this new technology will bring to the future.

“This is the stuff I dream about.”