Shalini Guleria in the lab.

A University of Waikato Masters student is aiming to 3D print life-sized breast cancer tumours, with her research targeting faster, more effective treatment for women with the disease.

Shalini Guleria has been through the design phase, and is now about to see if bioprinting will work with cancer cells. At the moment testing on cancer cells is done in 2D, basically a flat layer of cells. But people are 3 dimensional, and Shalini says being able to work on a 3D model will be far more representative, and potentially more accurate.

Shalini has printed up models of the tumours using plastic, to test out the design. They are black, webbed semi-circles that fit roughly in the palm of your hand. For her research she will replace the plastic in the 3D printer with commercially available cancer cells, printing out the mesh, and seeing how the cancer grows, filling out a palm sized tumour.

The 3D printed plastic tumour models.

Bioprinting is predominately used in the area of organ transplants. The idea is to use a person's own cells to grow a new organ, perhaps a  liver or kidney, which will not be rejected. But Shalini is taking a completely different approach to the process, and she believes it can provide a broader picture of cancer. “Once the tumour is printed we will be able to slice it and look into the depths of the cell. You can look at how the tissues are growing, the fibres connecting and the cell organelles - the things that make the cell grow - how they differ to the 2D model.”

Once the tumour is printed and grown, Shalini will use a common breast cancer chemotherapy drug, Cisplatin, on it. She says how the 3D tumours react to the drug may be quite different to the 2D model science has been relying on. “Testing cancer drugs on a more realistic model may mean we can hone how we use them. If we can reduce the treatment time and the dosage, obviously the side-effects will be less, making treatment less traumatic for women.”

Further down the track Shalini says the implications could be wider. “We may be able to take the cells from someone who has cancer, and use them to produce something we can test very specifically for that patient. Then we could make a detailed treatment plan for an individual's body, rather than take a generic approach. A panadol might work for you, and not someone else - everyone's bodies are different.”

Cancer is sometimes used as a metaphor: it is seen as evil, frightening and even invincible. But Shalini works with it in the lab, literally handling it almost every day, and is about to create the kind of tumour that might in other circumstances grow in a woman’s breast, and change her life forever. “I don’t find it scary. We grow them, but because cancer cells mutate very rapidly, and can have viral vectors, there are risks involved. We are in a high containment level lab facility, and every precaution is taken.”

Shalini is more interested in destroying cancer than growing it, but it is one means to an ultimate end. Her thesis should be completed by the end of the year.

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