Tiny 'organs in a dish' are providing a way for researchers like cancer researcher Calvin Kuo, MD, PhD, to more readily study the effect of specific, cancer-associated mutations. Unlike the traditional research approach of growing and studying sheets of identical cells on plastic, Kuo's approach mimics the shape, structure and tissue organization of a three-dimensional organ. The work of Kuo and his lab members was published Sunday in Nature Medicine. As Kuo explained in an e-mail to me:
We have developed a method to grow many different, normal organs outside of the body, in something like a petri dish. We call this an “organoid” system in which we can grow colons, or stomachs, or pancreases as little balls of cells. We can then introduce the DNA for potential cancer genes at will into the organoids and see if these genes induce cancerous characteristics. Using this system, we have accomplished the first conversion of normal colon, stomach or pancreas tissue to cancer in a petri dish. Then, we can rapidly decipher whether genes that are mutated in a given patient’s tumor are truly causing the cancer. In our initial studies, we have already found surprising results in which presumed cancer-causing genes were actually not, whereas cancerous properties actually resided in previously unsuspected genes.
Previously, Kuo has shown that, although the organoids are tiny, they can act like the real thing. For example, the colon organoids contract in a synchronized fashion that mimics the normal process of digestion. Now the researchers are thinking of new ways to use the organoids to help patients. As Kuo described:
Additionally, we would like to use the organoids for drug testing purposes to determine which current cancer drugs work against which mutations. This information could help physicians to give cancer patients only those drugs likely to be effective against their particular tumor mutations, which would save time, economic resources, and ultimately lives.
The possibilities don't end there, said Kuo:
Finally, we would like to extend our colon organoid technologies to directly grow tumor samples from individual patients. We could thus direct the treating oncologist to only prescribe those therapies for which we had prior evidence “in the dish” of a tumor response.