Scientists 3D Printed a Deadly Brain Tumor for the First Time

This is the most complete lab-grown model yet.
Derya Ozdemir
Microscopic image of the 3D-bioprinted glioblastoma model.Tel Aviv University

The battle against cancer has gotten a 3D-printed boost.

Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers have 3D printed a first-of-its-kind active glioblastoma tumor in a brain-like environment, complete with blood vessels supplying the mass. This could pave the way for the development of new methods to improve treatment and expedite the discovery of new drugs by allowing researchers to develop cures in a simulated setting. 

This is the most extensive replication of a tumor and surrounding tissue to date, according to the researchers. The 3D model of the tumor includes “a complex system of blood vessel-like tubes through which blood cells and drugs can flow, simulating a real tumor,” according to the study published in the journal Science Advances.

Glioblastoma and the breakthrough

Glioblastoma is an aggressive type of cancer that can form in the brain or spinal cord, and while it may be rare, it's particularly frightening since it develops rapidly and is almost always fatal. All this makes it extremely difficult to treat, which is why the therapy must be rigorous, usually requiring courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy that patients often grow too ill to complete.

New drugs could always help; however, current drug development processes are time-consuming and don't demonstrate how a medication will operate in a patient's body.

"Cancer, like all tissues, behaves very differently in a petri dish or test tube than it does in the human body," explains lead researcher Prof. Ronit Satchi-Fainaro, in a press release. "Approximately 90 percent of all experimental drugs fail in clinical trials because the success achieved in the lab is not reproduced in patients."

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This is why the TAU scientists turned toward 3D printing. Through rigorous research, they were able to create the world's first fully operational 3D model of a glioblastoma tumor, complete with 3D-printed cancer tissue and the surrounding tumor environment that influences the tumor's development.

Why is this important?

The tumor is built of a brain-like gel composition and features a sophisticated system of blood vessel-like tubes through which blood cells and medications can flow. This allowed them to see how a genuine tumor forms and responds to treatments.

"The process in which we bio-print a tumor from a patient is that we go to the operating suite, we extract tissue from the tumor and we print it according to the MRI of that patient,” explains Satchi-Fainaro. "Then, we have about two weeks in which we can test all the different therapies to evaluate their efficacy for that specific tumor, and get back with an answer about which treatment is predicted to be the best fit."

One of the most exciting aspects of the breakthrough is that identifying proteins and genes in cancer cells that can serve as new targets for drugs could be revolutionary in our fight against cancer.

"If we take a sample from a patient's tumor, together with surrounding tissues, we can 3D-bioprint from this sample 100 tiny tumors and test many different drugs in various combinations to discover the optimal treatment for this specific tumor,” she states. "Alternately, we can test numerous compounds on a 3D-bioprinted tumor and decide which is most promising for further development and investment as a potential drug."

The researchers were able to use their new technique to target a specific protein pathway that enables the immune system to help glioblastoma spread rather than kill fatal cancer cells. As a result, glioblastoma growth was slowed and invasion was stopped.

"We proved that our 3D-printed model is better suited for predicting treatment efficacy, drug target discovery, and new drug development," Satchi-Fainaro says.