A dream team for better cancer modeling?

International collaboration plans to create new cancer cell culture models to accelerate research

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ROCKVILLE, Md. & LONDON—On July 11, four research-focused players in the cancer and/or cell modeling arena announced that they had banded together and officially begun their work in an international project to develop a large, globally accessible bank of new cancer cell culture models for the research community.
Who are those players and what exactly are they doing? Well, it’s the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the foundation Hubrecht Organoid Technology, and they are teaming up to develop the Human Cancer Models Initiative (HCMI), which will bring together expertise from around the world to make some 1,000 cancer cell models.
As the partners note, using new techniques to grow cells, scientists can make models which will better resemble the tissue architecture and complexity of human tumors than do the cell lines typically used right now.
“As part of NCI’s Precision Medicine Initiative in Oncology, this new project is timed perfectly to take advantage of the latest cell culture and genomic sequencing techniques to create models that are representative of patient tumours and are annotated with genomic and clinical information,” said Dr. Louis Staudt, director of NCI’s Center for Cancer Genomics. “This effort is a first step towards learning how to use these tools to design individualized treatments.”
Added Dr. Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of clinical research: “This exciting new project means that we can expand our resources for researchers around the world. We want scientists to have the best resources to be able to easily study all types of cancer. And these new cell lines could transform how we study cancer and could help to develop better treatments for patients.”
Scientists in the global team will construct the models from tissues derived from patients with different types of cancer. This may very well include rare cancers and pediatric cancers which, the partners note, “are often under-represented or not available at all in existing cell line collections.” The tumors and the models derived from them will be genetically sequenced; researchers will have access to this information, as well as the anonymized clinical data about the patients and their tumors.
The new models have the potential, the HCMI collaborators say, to reflect the biology of tumors more accurately and better represent the patient population. They could also speed up development of new models and make research more efficient by avoiding unnecessary duplication of scientific efforts.
“New cancer model derivation technologies are allowing us to generate even more and improved cancer models for research,” noted Dr. Mathew Garnett, group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “ A concerted and coordinated effort to make new models will accelerate this process, while also allowing for rapid learning, protocol sharing and standardized culturing methods.”
For his part, Dr. Hans Clevers of the foundation Hubrecht Organoid Technology, said, simply: “We are delighted to take part in this global partnership to make new resources for researchers.”
In other recent NCI news, the institute announced July 6 that the largest study ever to investigate how genetic and biological factors contribute to breast cancer risk among black women had launched today—a collaborative research project designed to identify genetic factors that may underlie breast cancer disparities and that is funded by the NCI.
The Breast Cancer Genetic Study in African-Ancestry Populations initiative does not involve new patient enrollment but builds on years of research cooperation among investigators who are part of the African-American Breast Cancer Consortium, the African-American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk Consortium and the NCI Cohort Consortium. These investigators, who come from many different institutions, will share bio-specimens, data and resources from 18 previous studies, resulting in a study population of 20,000 black women with breast cancer.
“This effort is about making sure that all Americans—no matter their background—reap the same benefits from the promising advances of precision medicine. The exciting new approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment ring hollow unless we can effectively narrow the gap of cancer disparities, and this new research initiative will help us do that,” said Dr. Douglas R. Lowy, acting director of NCI. “I’m hopeful about where this new research can take us, not only in addressing the unique breast cancer profiles of African-American women, but also in learning more about the origin of cancer disparities.”
Survival rates for women with breast cancer have been steadily improving over the past several decades. However, these improvements have not been shared equally; black women are more likely to die of their disease. Perhaps of most concern is that black women are more likely than white women to be diagnosed with aggressive subtypes of breast cancer. The rate of triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive subtype, is twice as high in black women as compared to white women.
The exact reasons for these persistent disparities are unclear, although studies suggest that they are the result of a complex interplay of genetic, environmental and societal factors, including access to healthcare.
And in other Cancer Research UK news, the organization announced July 7 that a team of scientists have used imaging techniques as a new way to identify patients who could benefit from certain breast cancer treatments.
The team at King’s College London, in collaboration with scientists at the CRUK/MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, used fluorescence lifetime imaging to confirm if key proteins have joined together.
Fluorescence lifetime imaging is a technique that can accurately measure the distance between two protein molecules. In this study the researchers measured the distance between HER2 and HER3 proteins in breast cancer cells from patients.
The researchers think that patients whose imaging results show that these proteins have bonded together could benefit from HER2-targeted treatment, regardless of whether or not their tumor has high levels of HER2.

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