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Laboratory models to aid in fast breast cancer decision-making

Breast cancer is not one disease with a single treatment approach. Uncertainty remains about the optimum treatment for a significant number of patients. QUT researchers are using new models in the laboratory that mimic affected tissue, with the aim of informing clinical decision-making.

Dr Nathalie Bock is collaborating with two industry partners and Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, using an Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship of $300 000 to develop the 3D printed organoid models to guide individualised therapy.

Sydney industry partner Inventia Life Science brings to the collaboration an ability to rapidly print the organoid models with a patient’s own tumour cells, while Brisbane partner Gelomics brings expertise in tailoring them to accurately mimic both soft tissue and bone environments.

The point of difference for the research is an ability to use new printing techniques for high throughput screening, enabling rapid manufacturing and testing of biological samples for activity at the cellular or molecular level.

A focus for Dr Bock is advanced breast cancer involving metastasis to the bone – affecting up to 50 per cent of patients and associated with low survival rates.

She says some patients have pain and side effects requiring orthopaedic surgery, while others have activity in the bone that drives therapeutic resistance.

‘Thus, there is a large variety in response, which again remains unaddressed, with no means of personalising preclinical testing,’ she says.

‘We believe that a high-throughput preclinical model that mimics the bone microenvironment will enable us to screen which patients have the highest potential to metastasise to the bone, informing whether progression to an advanced stage of the cancer may happen – and will help with clinical decisions for patients.

‘Knowing the optimum treatment regimen to use would enable the most efficacious combination to be used earlier and would promote survival.’

In addition to rapidly producing breast cancer organoids, the research involves Inventia’s 3D bioprinting platform incorporating human bone-forming cells called osteoblasts and Gelomics hydrogels to create models of the bone microenvironment.

Blood is collected and combined with osteoclasts, cells involved in breaking down bone as part of repair and remodelling, to create a preclinical microenvironment for patients scheduled for a mastectomy and lymph node removal.

The work is conducted in QUT laboratories at the Translational Research Institute (TRI), working alongside researchers from the Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre – Queensland and the Cancer and Ageing Research Program. TRI is co-located at the Princess Alexandra Hospital to facilitate collaboration with clinicians.

Dr Bock is the lead chief investigator for a Cancer Australia Priority-driven Collaborative Cancer Research Scheme Grant of $199 500; co-chief investigator for an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project with $601 924 in funding; and co-chief investigator of a $5 million ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre project.

Her research has been recognised, with a place among the finalists of the Australian Museum Eureka Prize in the Outstanding Early Career Researcher category. The Eureka prizes are a key part of the Australian Museum’s role in the nation’s scientific research, education and outreach.

‘As a dedicated scientist, I value science education highly and hope to be an inspiration and mentor for young children and young women contemplating STEM disciplines,’ Dr Bock says.

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