In light of World Cancer Day (February 4th), let’s explore the power of organoid technology: an innovative scientific breakthrough that allows effective and precise investigation of cancer behaviour outside the human body.
We all have an idea of what cancer is, but what really is cancer? Cancer is a phenomenon where our body is taken over by a strange enemy that rises from, and within, itself. Cancer cells are essentially the distorted version of our own normal cells. Cancer continues to be one of the major health burdens - we have been battling cancer since ancient times, yet we still cannot “cure” it today. Many factors can influence the behaviour of cancer cells, such as gene mutations that happen inside the cells or the environment to which our cells are exposed. The transformation of normal cells into cancer cells may take decades to occur. The slow natural progression poses a big problem in cancer care: it is difficult to precisely predict the outcomes of carcinogenesis, let alone preventing the bad cells to outgrow the normal ones.
Disease modelling with organoids
Thirty years ago, one could only dream of growing human organs in the lab to study diseases. We are lucky to live in an era so advanced that such thought is no longer wishful thinking! Scientists have come up with mini-organs, so-called “organoids”, that can reliably demonstrate actual condition of specific organs inside the human body. We can grow organoids from patient’s own materials, either healthy or diseased cells. Organoid is quite a versatile invention, because it allows scientists to study how diseases progress or predict how patient’s cells respond to certain drug. The benefits of organoid technology extend beyond the scope of cancer research: for example, organoids have been essential in studying cystic fibrosis and inherited blindness.
From (lab) bench to (patient) bedside
Last year, a team of researchers at the UMCG successfully grew organoids composed of healthy cells from the salivary gland of a cancer patient who underwent radiation therapy. The lab-grown healthy cells were then transplanted into the patient’s own salivary gland, in order to replace the cells dying off from the radiation. This innovative approach also managed to alleviate dry mouth, experienced by the patient as a result of his radiotherapy. In my line of research, organoid technology also holds the potential in predicting how polyps develop in patients with Lynch syndrome. The combination of organoid technology and other innovative methods, such as gene engineering and “organ-on-chip”, thus promises a powerful toolbox to understand the behaviour of cancer cells and explore many approaches that can prevent disease progression.
“It’s like getting to know the enemy before going to war”
The successful implementation of organoid technology in the clinic highlights the importance of cancer biology research in improving cancer care. Cancer biology research provides us with information about the problem(s) we are dealing with and helps us in deciding how to attack the diseased cells. In order to close the gaps in cancer care, one has to think beyond providing treatment that is continuous and accessible for all cancer patients. Valuable information gathered from cancer biology laboratories will equip oncologists in optimising treatment based on how each individual's cancer behave and evolve - ensuring an effective, personalised care to address the needs of each patient.