The Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and UPM Biochemicals are continuing a joint research project, which investigates the application of UPM's new cellulose-based gel material for cancer research.
“We investigate how cancer cells from solid tumors grow as a three-dimensional culture and respond to different drugs. However, it is challenging to create an environment that resembles the tissues, and for that we have been using UPM's new biomaterial, the GrowDex® hydrogel," says Senior Researcher Vilja Pietiäinen, who is responsible for coordinating the project at FIMM.
In this project, the researchers optimize the use of GrowDex® hydrogel for high-throughput screening for drug sensitivity testing of cancer cells. It has turned out that cells which have been cultured in this type of three-dimensional (3D) environment can show different drug responses than those that have been cultured in a traditional two-dimensional (2D) environment.
“This does not apply to all of the drugs. But with some drugs, the cancer cells are sensitive in one or the other condition, not both. In other words, a certain drug only kills cancer cells in a 3D environment,” Pietiäinen says.
And sometimes it is the other way around: drugs kill cancer cells is a 2D environment but not in a 3D environment.
Is it possible that companies may already have developed some good cancer drugs but the drugs have not been studied further just because they were not effective in a 2D environment used in the initial compound screening? One could argue that, admits Pietiäinen, but she adds that 3D culture methods are fortunately continuously developing and more widely applied today.
Knowledge sharing accelerates research
The joint research project with FIMM is highly regarded by UPM. 3D cell culture is a new field which is constantly developing. In practice, research is often difficult and slow.
“Research is taking small steps over a long period of time. One cannot do this alone, and that is why knowledge sharing is extremely important for the industry and the academia”, says Pia Nilsson, Head of GrowDex® Business at UPM.
For FIMM, cooperation with UPM has also proven useful and the experiences have been positive.
“Our precision medicine efforts are enabled by team science. Because we are doing things together, we have several different types of specialists involved in the precision medicine projects: clinicians, basic researches and technology experts. This type of close cooperation helps us to better understand cancer biology and drug responses of cancer cells. In the future, that information could also help patients,” says Vilja Pietiäinen.
Main picture: Pia Nilsson, Head of GrowDex® Business at UPM, and Senior Researcher Vilja Pietiäinen, FIMM.