discoveries magazine

Innovation 2: Cancer Cures in a Dish

Illustration: Yuta Onoda

Knowledge about our genome is growing at an extraordinary rate. Combine that knowledge with bioengineering—which applies engineering principles to biological systems—and what could follow is a personalized medicine revolution. At Cedars-Sinai, investigators are using bioengineering to regenerate and grow human tissues in petri dishes to seek solutions to cancers that primarily affect women.

Laboratory models of diseases, or "diseases in a dish," are being developed thanks to a process using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are derived from a patient’s skin or blood cells and sent "back in time" to an embryonic state. From there, they can be coaxed to grow into any type of tissue. When a patient with a genetically based disease donates the original cells, iPSCs that are created will exhibit that same condition. Investigators at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute and the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute are using this stem-cell-generation technique to further understand and treat breast and ovarian cancers.

One team has used human iPSCs to grow breast tissue so perfect "that it can be induced to form breast ductal structure and secrete milk," research scientist Xiaojiang Cui, PhD, says. The novel technique will allow physicians to evaluate breast cancer risk for individuals by testing patient-specific tissue in petri dishes.

"We would be able to track and pinpoint how hormones, chemicals, and environmental factors cause changes in protein and DNA. That knowledge could potentially lead to better breast cancer prevention and treatment strategies," Cui says. One day, it also could be used in breast reconstruction to reduce the need for silicone-shelled implants, or fully replace them with generated tissue derived from a patient’s own cells.

Scientists from the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute are studying ovarian cancer in collaboration with Beth Y. Karlan, MD, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Women’s Cancer Program and the Board of Governors Chair in Gynecologic Oncology. Because the most deadly kind of ovarian cancer begins in the fallopian tubes, the team is growing those cells using iPSC technology. The project's rewards could include new prevention approaches and even vaccines.