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Wisconsin researcher predicts cancer will be chronic disease in 10-15 years

UW-River Falls Biology professor, Timothy Lyden, PhD., works in the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center (TCIC) lab at UW-River Falls. Kathy M Helgeson/UWRF Communications

RIVER FALLS, Wis. --  The world of cancer research is changing, according to University of Wisconsin-River Falls professor Tim Lyden.

“There’s a real revolution happening in cancer biology right now,” Lyden said. “I think in 10 or 15 years, cancer is going to be a very different disease. Probably a lot of cancers, will be changed to chronic disease rather than the life-threatening kind of diseases that he yare today. (It) doesn’t mean that we’re going to cure all of them, or necessarily cure any of them outright, but I think we are going to develop much better understandings.”

Lyden, the director of the university’s Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center  is doing some research related to this field of study, though he and his students are not going to be curing cancer this summer.

They’re working on developing technology and methods to study living cancer cells.

Lyden is working with Microscopy Innovations of Marshfield. He’s using Microscopy’s “mPrep” capsule, a bit smaller than the width of the average pen or pencil, as a bioreactor, or a place to grow living cells.

The cells are grown using a scaffolding matrix. This matrix is synthetic, but mimics the body’s natural extracellular matrices. In the body, they’re made of protein, and they show organ cells where to grow, and help the body form tissue in the correct shape. Lyden said they work much like the scaffolding you’ll see on construction projects.

The university center  has already developed a synthetic matrix. This can be used to grow 3D tissues. That means if the group took liver cells, for example, the matrix could be used to grow liver tissue that looks much like an actual liver, rather than simply a group of cells collected in a petri dish.

The technology Lyden is working with could be used in the “living biopsy” approach to cancer research.

Through that method, a cancer patient’s tumor would be grown in a lab to make several 3D artificial tumors – that is artificially grown in the lab.

“We refer to these as ‘“lab animals in a dish,’” Lyden said, “ because we can then examine the behavior of the specific tumor from that individual and even subject it to treatment in the lab, to test how these cells will respond.”

He said the proteins and other biological markers tumors constantly “shed” could also be tracked in the lab, to get an idea of how a person’s cancer might change over time.

Lyden said he was contacted by Microscopy about a year and a half ago. They asked if he’d collaborate with them on developing a prototype mini-bioreactor system using their capsule.

“As soon as I saw the concept, I was immediately impressed by the fact that it could address a technical hurdle that we had been facing on the "living biopsy" system,” Lyden said. “So we began seeking funding and doing exploratory "proof of concept" experiments in 2014 and this year succeeded in obtaining the UW-System Regents Scholar Award, which will fund the first full prototype testing of the system.”

Having the capsules helps standardize results, he said. Because the tissue is grown in tiny capsules, it grows in basically the same shape. That would make it easier for researchers to compare different samples.

Lyden and his students took the capsules and attached them to the bottom of regular syringes filled with media. In this case, media isn’t television or newspapers, it’s a fluid full of the nutrients the cells need to grow.

Lyden used a syringe full of media attached to a capsule containing breast cancer cells as an example. All of this was enclosed in another tube. Pushing down on the end of the syringe, new media forced its way through the cancer cells, and the old media was pushed into the bottom of the tube.

Right now, Lyden said he and his students do that about once a day.

“It’s good proof of concept that their capsule will hold our scaffold, and will allow us to grow artificial tumor tissue,” Lyden said. But there is a problem.

The nutrients in the media are used up well before the media is changed.

Lyden and his students are working to create a system in which the media is constantly flowing through the cells at a slower rate. They’re creating a device with large syringes full of media, and tubes that connect to the capsules. They’re working to use IV regulators to control the flow of the media.

Old media will be collected as it exits the capsules.

Lyden was recently awarded “Regents Scholar” funding from the University of Wisconsin System board of regents for his research with Microscopy’s capsules.

Lyden’s first goal is to refine the prototype into a marketable product.

His team’s second goal is to prove that the living biopsy approach can work, using cell lines.  Those are cancer cells specifically selected and grown from actual tumors. Unlike tumors, however, cell lines contain only one type of cell. That can make research easier.

Lyden’s research won’t directly affect the way cancer is treated.

“But, 3D culture of both normal and cancer tissues provides us with the tools to better understand the cells and their behaviors in ways that we have never before been able to do before,” Lyden said. “This, then directly supports the development of our knowledge of these complex diseases. “

He said the “living biopsy” approach could have more direct effects on cancer treatment in the future. It comes back to that “revolution” in cancer research Lyden mentioned, which he says is related the Cancer Stem Cell Hypothesis. Created many years ago, and studied more in the last decade, the hypothesis is that cancers may come from stem cells.

Lyden said stems cells exist in all normal adult human tissues. They are very long lived, and can produce other kinds of cells to replace old cells, or repair injuries to the tissue around them.

But because the cells are so long-lived, there is more of a chance they could mutate, Lyden said. The hypothesis is that a mutated stem cell could produce cancer cells, depending on environment the cell is in.

The idea is that changing cancer cells’ environment may someday be able to get those mutated stem cells to produce healthy cells instead of cancerous ones.

But right now, Lyden’s team is just working on their small piece of cancer research: the mini-bioreactor.

Lyden has about five students working with him now, and will have around nine or 10 working with him in the summer on his research. He said it’s a very exciting time for students like them to be a part of cancer research now. He said he’s also very impressed with his students’ hard work, and attitude about doing that work.

“I wish I was younger so I could be a part of it longer,” Lyden said.  “The students that I teach today with 30 or 40 years of career ahead of them, they’re going to see what I’m ... predicting ...I’ll be an old scientist by then, and they’ll all be the young scientist making those breakthroughs.”

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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