When scientists test drugs on cancer cells, they do so in the two-dimensional confines of the Petri dish. If the drug being tested works well, the next stage is to shift to the 3-D environment and see how the drug tackles 3-D tumors in animals. If that goes well, then, finally, researchers start clinical trials on humans.
But what if testing and treatment could start in 3-D? Tumors, after all, exist in 3-D. And to come up with new ways of testing and treating cancer, scientists need to be able to work with tumors not just on the X- and Y-axis, but on the Z-axis, too.
The answer may lie in 3-D printing. Thanks to a team led by Dr. Wei Sun of Philadelphia's Drexel University, 3-D tumors can now be biofabricated using 3-D printers that squirt out a mixture of cancerous and healthy biomaterial, dollop by dollop, in an infinitely higher resolution than your average . And it could revolutionize the way we attempt to cure cancer.
According to Sun, there's just as huge a disconnect between what works in two versus three dimensions as there is between what works in animals versus humans. These disconnects are what make developing new cancer drugs so expensive. You can't just rely on a formula when switching to each new environment; testing takes time, results must be documented along the way, and adjustments must be made.
With Sun's 3-D printing technology, a living tumor can be printed just as easily as cancer cells grow in a Petri dish. Sun's machine has an extraordinarily high resolution, which allows cells to be placed with incredible precision: The average cell is 20 microns, where as Sun's system can place individual cells within two to three microns. That means Sun can print out extraordinarily specific, spheroid-shaped tumors in a multitude of different shapes and sizes.
But testing cancer drugs more easily is only one of the many uses of Sun's technology. Each tumor is different, so there's an exciting possibility that the technology could be used to simulate individual patients' cancers in the lab—to see which drugs work most effectively on it. And who says this technology has to stop at cancer?
"Doctors want to be able to print tissue, to make organ on the cheap," Dr. Sun tells Co.Design. "This kind of technology is what will make that happen. In 10 years, every lab and hospital will have a 3-D printing machine that can print living cells."
So far, we've been fighting the war on cancer in flatland, but thanks to 3-D printing, the battle's about to take on an entirely new dimension. You can read Dr. Sun's full paper on 3-D printing tumors here.