Apr 17, 2019 09:41 AM EDT
Before conducting tests in humans or animals, there has always been a need to evaluate most cancer drugs in tumor cells grown in a lab dish. The recent years, however, have opened up a growing realization that the environment where these cells are grown does not accurately mimic the natural environment of a tumor, and that this discrepancy could produce incorrect results.
MIT biologists investigated the structure of the interstitial fluid that naturally surrounds pancreatic tumors in a new study, and discovered that it's nutrient composition is different from that of the culture medium commonly used to grow cancer cells. Not only that, but it also differs from blood, which feeds the interstitial fluid and removes waste products.
Also in the findings, according to an associate professor of biology at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute for Investigative Cancer Research, Mathew Vander Heiden, co-author of the study, he said that while in a culture medium, growing cancer cells, more comparable to this fluid, could aid researcher better predict how experimental drugs will affect cancer cells.
Vander Heiden stated further that it is an obvious statement that a tumor environment is essential, but his thought is that in cancer research, the pendulum has swung so far towards gene and people tend to forget that.
The importance of the environment in cancer research cannot be over-emphasized. It has long been known to the scientist that cancer cells metabolize nutrients in different ways than most other cells. This unconventional approach helps them to create the building blocks they want to continue growing and dividing, forming new cancer cells. There have been constant studies by scientist to develop drugs that interfere with these metabolic processes in recent years, and one such drug was approved to treat leukemia in 2017.
The concept of testing these drugs in cancer cells grown in a lab dish is an essential step to developing such drugs. Some of the growth media regularly used to grow these cells is carbon sources like nitrogen, glucose, and other nutrients. In the past few years, however, the lab of Vander Heiden has discovered that cancer cells grown in this medium respond differently to drugs then they do in mouse models of cancer.
A member of the Whitehead Institute and MIT's professor of biology, David Sabatini, also found that drugs affect cancer cells differently if they are grown in a medium that is similar to the nutrient structure of human plasma, as a substitute to the traditional growth medium.
Vander Heiden added that other similar results from a couple of other groups around the world suggested that environment matters a lot. Indeed it is a wakeup call for scientists that to know how to find the dependencies of cancer; they have to get the environment right.
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