Media Releases

‘Tumour-on-a-chip’ technology offers new direction

November 6, 2013

TORONTO, ON — A two-year col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Chan and the Roche­leau labs at the Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME) has led to the devel­op­ment of a new microflu­idics screen­ing plat­form that can accu­rate­ly pre­dict the way nanopar­ti­cles will behave in a liv­ing body.

Nanopar­ti­cles are being eyed by sci­en­tists as a poten­tial­ly pow­er­ful tool for per­son­al­ized can­cer treat­ments. The tiny par­ti­cles, rang­ing in size from 10 to 100 nanome­tres (some­where in size between a large pro­tein to a small virus), can be deployed to out­line tumours or to deliv­er chemother­a­py drugs direct­ly to can­cer cells with more poten­cy and less side effects than reg­u­lar deliv­ery meth­ods.

But Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Roche­leau, core fac­ul­ty at the Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME), cross-appoint­ed to the Depart­ments of Phys­i­ol­o­gy and Med­i­cine, Divi­sion of Endocrinol­o­gy & Metab­o­lism and a cor­re­spond­ing author of the study released in Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions last week, explained that the new plat­form fills some of the glar­ing holes in cur­rent nan­otech­nol­o­gy research.

Often, the sur­faces of these tiny par­ti­cles are treat­ed to make them stick to cer­tain cells, an effect which tends to work very well when study­ing the par­ti­cles in petri dish cul­tures. “What we showed was that the nanopar­ti­cles meet up with a cell mass and stick so strong­ly to the out­side cells, they aren’t able to pen­e­trate into the tis­sue. It makes you think of design­ing your nanopar­ti­cles in a dif­fer­ent way,” stat­ed Roche­leau.

Aside from petri dish cul­tures, live test­ing has been the only oth­er method of study­ing the move­ments and inter­ac­tions of nanopar­ti­cles with cell mass­es. But as one of the paper’s lead authors, PhD can­di­date Alex Albanese, explained, “If we were to inject nanopar­ti­cles into mice it would be like throw­ing a paper air­plane blind­fold­ed. We see where it lands but we’re not real­ly sure of the flight pat­tern.”

And until now, there has been no mid­dle ground.

‘Mid­dle ground’ is exact­ly what Albanese and co-author, Dr. Alan Lam, a recent grad­u­ate of IBBME, have designed. The researchers placed live spher­oid tis­sues, tis­sues that mim­ic the prop­er­ties of can­cer­ous tumours, into a tiny, inch-long cham­ber through which a saline solu­tion was con­stant­ly flowed. The flow­ing liq­uid allowed the researchers to study the spher­oids in envi­ron­ments sim­i­lar to those found in tumours. Flu­o­res­cent nanopar­ti­cles were then inject­ed into the cham­ber, allow­ing the team to mea­sure just how many of the nanopar­ti­cles pen­e­trat­ed the tis­sue, where they were accu­mu­lat­ing, and the effect of the liquid’s speed on the nanoparticle’s move­ments.

The exper­i­ments pre­dict­ed the way the nanopar­ti­cles would behave in larg­er, live mod­els, with results avail­able with­in an hour rather than weeks.

“The tumor-on-a-chip allows us to sneak a peek at the paper planes before they land,” described Albanese.

Although this is just the first time microflu­idics tech­nol­o­gy plat­form has been used to study the effects of nanopar­ti­cles on a live tumour tis­sue, the researchers were sur­prised at how sim­ple the tech­nol­o­gy can poten­tial­ly make can­cer screen­ing and treat­ment.

“Biop­sies can be grown into these tis­sues and placed in the chan­nel. Then we can find out which nanopar­ti­cles work and put them into patients,” explained Roche­leau.

The study’s authors admit there is still a vast dis­tance between this pre­lim­i­nary study and future stud­ies that can per­fect the design of the nanopar­ti­cles, as well as their effi­ca­cy with dif­fer­ent tumour tis­sues, organs and the entire body.

“Com­put­ers have come a long way since the 1960s. Right now, we’re still in the 1960s of per­son­al­ized med­i­cine,” argued Albanese.

For Roche­leau, though, the study points to a break­through in the way researchers are tack­ling com­plex bio­med­ical chal­lenges.

“What makes this project unique is how mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary it is,” he said. “These are very dif­fer­ent tech­niques and tools com­ing togeth­er to address a prob­lem, and this project wouldn’t have occurred with­out the exper­tise of two unique peo­ple and labs, and how long they stuck it out.”


The Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME) is a unique, mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary grad­u­ate research unit at the cut­ting edge of inno­va­tion in bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing – where inves­ti­ga­tors from the fac­ul­ties of engi­neer­ing, med­i­cine and den­tistry col­lab­o­rate to find inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to the world’s most press­ing health care chal­lenges.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Erin Vol­lick, Senior Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Offi­cer,
Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME), Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
E: | W: | P: 416–946-8019