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UWRF professor, students use three-dimensional technology to study tumor tissue

November 30, 2016

Breast cancer models being developed at the UW-River Falls Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center (TCIC) are giving researchers new ways of studying tumors that may ultimately lead to improved treatment options.

“What we’re interested in is using three-dimensional technology to study the cellular basis for the development and then function of tissue,” said UWRF Biology Professor Tim Lyden, who directs the TCIC and has been leading this push to better model breast cancer for the past five to six years.

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer killed about 40,000 women in 2015. Finding effective ways to prevent or slow it down is undoubtedly crucial, but in order to do that researchers must figure out a method to study how it works.

Lyden’s work aims to do just that by taking a living model of tissue—either cancerous or healthy—and then putting it in a system that closely mimics the functions of the human body. With these models, researchers have control over the conditions that affect the tissues and can test to find out how different variables change how a tumor interacts with healthy body cells.

Most recently, Lyden has been working on developing a “bioreactor” system, which essentially mimics the conditions that cancerous or healthy tissues would experience in a living human body. The target tissue is kept at the body temperature of a human being, and is held suspended in a liquid media that mimics the interstitial fluid between cells. The fluid media is then slowly pumped through the target tissue with a syringe.

“We actually analyze the runoff to see what the tissue is producing and what it’s secreting,” said Hanna Thueson, a fifth-year biology major at UWRF who has worked on the bioreactor system in years past under Lyden. Her job, primarily, was to grow the materials that went into the bioreactor system.

What Lyden, Thueson and other student researchers at UWRF are hoping to figure out from this system is how to mitigate the effects of metastasis. Metastasis, according to the National Cancer Institute, is the process by which cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. In the case of breast cancer, Lyden said, the cells typically end up infecting the brain, bone and sometimes liver, where they do considerably more damage than in the breast.

“That’s essentially what makes cancer so dangerous,” said Thueson. “If you can find a way to stop metastasis, the tumor becomes relatively benign and much easier to work with.”

With the bioreactor system, Lyden and Thueson can monitor the materials that fall off the tissue cells that they’re studying. If they put cancer cells in the syringe system, they can look for biomarkers, substances that indicate the presence of cancer. If they put healthy cells into the system, they can make sure that the cancer biomarkers that they find aren’t in fact substances that a healthy body normally produces. If they stack healthy and cancerous cells on top of one another and pump the media through both of them, they can figure out how the two interact and affect one another.

There is a variety of other research involving the modeling of breast cancer going on at UWRF. Lyden talked about “nodules,” little balls of cancerous cells that drift away from the main tumor and which researchers are looking at as being potentially involved in metastasis.

There has also, Lyden said, been research looking into how cancer cells bind to their host. By applying cancerous cells to adipose and fibroblast tissue (the two main materials that make up the breast), researchers hope to pinpoint the molecules that are involved in the binding process and potentially stop the cancer from attaching in the first place. Nothing has been concluded yet, but research is still ongoing.

“I’m a part of a much bigger project,” said Thueson. “My work is only a small part of everything that’s going on on campus. So I think when you combine all the data, it has the [potential] to actually be put to really good use.”