For years, scientists have used biobanking as a central technique to support translational research and medicine. Using biobanking software and a variety of equipment, researchers are able to use this practiceto store millions of genetic and biological samples in freezers. This freezer inventory can then be carefully monitored, organized and used to study a variety of conditions and disease. Now, however, it seems that the process is changing: scientists in the United Kingdom have announced that they have created the world’s first “living biobank” from patient tumors, using tissues to identify the most promising drugs for each person’s unique case. Experts say this change could be a pivotal moment for the biobanking industry, allowing doctors to create personalized medical treatments and yield more effective results.
Geneticists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge say they grew clumps of cells called 3D organoids from cancerous and healthy tissues taken from 20 patients with bowel cancer, all of whom had received surgery to remove their tumors and were not being treated further. After creating 22 tumor organoids and 19 healthy tissue organoids over the course of several weeks, tests showed that the clumps closely mimicked the patients’ real life tumors in a number of ways, including their genetic profiles, structure and more. As a result, the researchers were able to identify specific DNA mutations that seemed to be driving growth in each of the patients’ tumors, which they then subjected to 83 approved or experimental anti-cancer drugs. Some had little impact, but the researchers say that at least one mutated gene was destroyed by a new drug. As a result, the team hopes to build up a library of living tumors to help them find the best treatments for a broader range of specific cancers.
While the living biobanking project was unable to influence the care of the donors, as they had already been treated, experts say the work has demonstrated how the procedure might help other patients in the future. This is especially true in the UK, where as many as 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. As a result, the research team is working to improve their method: according to Marc van de Wetering, one of the project’s senior researchers, the scientists are now exploring whether organoids can predict how well patients respond to cancer treatments by making cell clumps from cancer that has spread in patients and subjecting them to the same drugs the patients receive. This project will likely run for a few years before the results are clear. However, the researchers are hopeful that they may have found a new and effective way to study and treat cancer, possibly even through personalized medicine.