Researchers are using laser light to probe tiny samples of tumors to gauge their metabolic activity when dosed with a variety of cancer drugs. Their goal is to pinpoint the most effective drugs for patients on an individual basis by growing and scanning pieces of their tumor in the lab before they begin chemo. Ben Gruber reports.
INTRO: STORY: The experiments in this lab at Vanderbilt University could prove vital in the fight against cancer. Researcher Alex Walsh is using a laser to make what she calls an organoid glow. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALEX WALSH, RESEARCHER, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Organoids are small pieces of a patients' tumor that are about 100 to 300 microns in diameter and they grow as kind of sphere like shapes." That sphere-like shape is important because it mimics the conditions the tumor would inhabit in the human body. A tiny sample is placed in dish filled with a collagen gel which feeds the tumor, allowing the different cell types that comprise it to thrive in three dimensions. The organoid is then dosed with a cocktail of cancer drugs and placed under a microscope. Walsh then blasts the tiny tumor with a laser. That laser light makes the organoid glow, to different degrees based on its response to the chemo drugs. Walsh says this process allows her to gauge the tumor's metabolic activity, which, in turn, tells her if the drugs are working. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALEX WALSH, RESEARCHER, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We're using these readouts of cellular metabolism to predict the drug response that the sample came from." The method has proven successful in mice and Melissa Skala, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, says the team are now trialing it on tumors taken from breast cancer patients. Skala says the method could prove a game changer. She says everyone's cancer is unique, which is why customizing treatment options is essential. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MELISSA SKALA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "So the idea here is to eliminate those drugs that don't work and if needed replace them with drugs that do work so we are hoping to have the smallest common denominator of drugs that achieve the lowest toxicity yet achieve treatment efficacy." Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in woman in the United States. Skala says that having the ability to customize a drug protocol for patients BEFORE they start chemo may significantly improve the odds for a successful treatment. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MELISSA SKALA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Thirty to forty percent of patience that receive those therapies as their first line therapy don't respond to those drugs ever. And so they suffer toxicity from treatment that ultimately isn't going to benefit them." If further trials prove successful, Skala estimates it will take up to 10 years to move tumor-on-dishes out of the lab and into the clinic.