A cloned tumor doesn’t necessarily sound like a good thing. But for two pharmaceutical scientists students at North Dakota State University, it’s the key to developing more personalized treatments for cancer.

Graduate students Prajakta Kulkarni and Matthew Confeld have been working since last summer on a method for cloning tumors, in order to test cancer drugs on the tumor alone rather than on an actual patient.

“Our idea was to have a three-dimensional, an entire tumor cloned, outside of the body,” Kulkarni explained. “So instead of a patient undergoing a treatment, and trial and error over that treatment, we can treat all the replicas of those tumors in a complex environment outside of the body.”

Right now, when a patient is diagnosed, they receive a drug regiment based off clinical trials of patients with a similar cancer, Confeld said. But cancer cells vary greatly from person to person, and what worked for one patient can fail on another.

“To say a treatment is effective is to say it works 50% of the time in patients,” Confeld said. “And that’s high for most drugs.”

By cloning tumors, they would be able to not only move the harsh side effects of anti-cancer treatment away from the patient, but also find exactly which drug to use on the patient by testing on a replica of their exact tumor.

They are doing so using a product they designed, which they call the Opti-M3D. They built it using standard medical tubes and supplies meant for fishes.

cloning tumors

How to grow your own tumor

The centerpiece to the system is a biodegradable 3D printed capsule, wherein the tumor will grow. Tumor cells are placed on small round pieces of paper, the size of a quarter, and placed inside the capsule. To the naked eye it looks just like drops of water on paper, Confeld said.

Just as plants need sunlight and water, cells need an environment much like the human body to grow. The students do this by connecting the capsule with tubes to tanks filled with the cell culture media, and a water pump originally intended to pump chemicals through aquarium water for special fish.

In this case, it’s used to pump cell cultures through the capsule to replicate the environment in the human body; the blood flow, the “cocktail of cells,” rushing around, as Kulkarni described.

They tested their project using cancer cells that they – and this is normal – bought online. No, it wasn’t Ebay, Kulkarni said. (Sidenote: Apparently there is only one strand of cancer cells used for all medical testing. They came from only one patient. This is so that testing can remain consistent.)

The two tanks are filled with the cell culture media, which is then pumped through the 3D printed capsule through the tubes.

The two tanks are filled with the cell culture media, which is then pumped through the 3D printed capsule through the tubes.

Their tests using cancer cells were successful. By doing the same thing with a tissue fragment from a tumor, they are able to actually grow their own tumor, a replica of the one taken from the cells. With their current pump, they would be able to grow four tumors at once and do multiple drug tests, thus speeding up the process of finding effective treatment, they said. The testing would take around 15-20 days depending on the cancer, Kulkarni said.

The process would save precious time and physical strain for the patient, Confeld said.

“There are over a hundred different anti-cancer drugs, and they all have various side effects…hair loss, nausea, vomiting, problems with red blood cells and white blood cells,” he said.

“And after all that you still don’t know whether it was effective or not,” Kulkarni added.

“The less you can give the patient, the better for them,” Confeld said.

Their process would cut down costs as well. Typically prices of anti-cancer drugs range between $10,00 to $20,000 or more a month, Confeld said. By singling out just the tumor, they can use smaller doses of the drugs, which would save thousands of dollars for the patients.

They would also be able to track if the cancer develops resistance to certain drugs, something that is a serious problem in cancer care, Confeld said.

“We can do a follow-up and continue to grow those tumors and treat them. If resistance does develop, we can alert the physician and say there is resistance developing, you might want to alert the patient and see if it’s happening in them too,” he said.

First Place at Innovation Challenge

Kulkarni and Confeld submitted this project as part of the Service Track of NDSU’s Innovation Challenge, a nine month long competition around student’s innovative ideas. Not only did they walk away with first place and $5,000 for the Service Track, but also took People’s Choice award and an additional $1,000.

They said that the money may go towards buying their own 3D printer, as they initially had trouble outsourcing the 3D print of their capsule (they eventually had it printed at the UPS store.)

Since their win at the Innovation Challenge, Kulkarni and Confeld are taking a bit of a breather, they said. Kulkarni is finishing her thesis, which is based around, in simplified terms, creating nano-cultures that can have more effective treatment on cancer. Confeld is finishing his studies in pharmacy while preparing to start his own PhD program, potentially later this year.

After Kulkarni’s defense, the two plan to move forward with their research. In the long run, Opti-M3D could become a service, they said, where hospitals send tissue fragments to them and they run the testing.

First things first, they need to get their intellectual property protected, their adviser Sanku Mallik, PhD Professor of Pharmacy at NDSU said. Their work is currently in the process of getting a patent through NDSU’s Tech Transfer office. Kulkarni is also looking into getting funds from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Once they get those things taken care and move forward, Mallik is enthusiastic for the potential of the project.

“It’s going to have tremendous impact,” Mallik said. “It’s going to touch the lives of many cancer patients.”


Photos courtesy of Emerging Prairie.


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Marisa Jackels