8 December

Scientists start biobank with living breast cancer cells

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Scientists of the Hubrecht Institute and the UMC Utrecht have set up a biobank with living tumor cells of more than 150 breast cancer patients. The biobank enables research into tissues and genetic features of breast cancer tumors (organoids), and gives rise to information regarding the specific characteristics of breast cancer. This way, the mechanism of action of various medicines can be tested in a personal way, without directly exposing the patient to the treatment. That is written in a publication in Cell.

Breast cancer is the most occurring type of cancer in women – it accounts for more than one fifth of all cancer cases. Worldwide, one million women are affected by the disease. In women between 30 and 59 years, it is the most common cause of death.

Personalized medicine
More than twenty distinct forms of breast cancer exist. Moreover, by researching the DNA of these cancer cells, hundreds of genetic variations are discovered. All of these contribute to the development and characteristics of the tumor, but are different in each patient. Current treatments do not have an effect in all patients and still use these characteristics only to a certain extent. Therefore, there is a need for personalized treatments.

Living tumor cells
Scientists, led by prof. dr. Hans Clevers (Hubrecht Institute) and prof. dr. Edwin Cuppen (UMC Utrecht), started a biobank with organoids of more than 100 different breast cancers. These organoids are cultivated from live tumor cells that have been harvested from breast cancer patients during surgery. All breast cancer organoids were characterized regarding tissue type and genetic features.

The organoids offer researchers the possibility to test a broad spectrum of possible therapies per individual patient in the laboratory, and couple these to genetic features. Because this drug research takes place in the organoid and not in the patient’s body, this testing method is fast and safe. Also, the patient experiences no side effects and many medicines can be tested in the same fashion.

The biobank is a valuable strategy in the research into personalized medicines, but due to its size, was difficult to set up. ‘We had to overcome large innovation as well as execution challenges’, says Norman Sachs, researcher at the Hubrecht Institute. ‘It succeeded now for the first time, because the Hubrecht Institute is an ideal environment for scientific innovation. Also, we collaborated with a multitude of external partners to build this unique resource.’

Drug development
In their publication, the researchers describe a collection of well-characterized breast cancer organoids, available for cancer research and drug development. Also, they expose a strategy to show that tumors in a patient’s body respond to medication in the same way as their organoids in the laboratory. Furthermore, based on patterns in the tumor DNA, the researchers predicted the medicines that have the highest chance to be effective. Indeed, the organoids responded to these drugs. Joep de Ligt, bio-informatician and genetics researcher at the UMC Utrecht: ‘This study shows that DNA patterns can play an important role in establishing the right medication to treat a tumor. Increasingly, the DNA will be the starting point for treatments.’

'Increasingly, the DNA will be the starting point for treatments.'

About the Hubrecht Institute
The Hubrecht Institute is a research institute focussed on developmental and stem cell biology. It encompasses 19 research groups that perform fundamental and multidisciplinary research, both in healthy systems and disease models. The Hubrecht Institute is affiliated with the University Medical Center Utrecht, which advances the translation to the clinic. The Hubrecht Institute is part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). 

About University Medical Center Utrecht
University Medical Center Utrecht (UMC Utrecht) belongs to the largest public healthcare institutions in the Netherlands and is an internationally leading healthcare provider, medical school and research institute that is exciting for its people, attractive to talent and embodies a culture of teamwork, innovation, sustainability and a competitive spirit. As a patient-centered organization, its 11,000 employees are dedicated to prevent disease, improve healthcare, develop new treatment methods and refine existing ones, with quality and patient safety as cornerstones. 

About the KNAW
The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences is the forum, conscience, and voice of the arts and sciences in the Netherlands. It promotes quality in science and scholarship and strives to ensure that Dutch scholars and scientists contribute to cultural, social and economic progress. As a research organisation, the Academy is responsible for a group of fifteen outstanding national research institutes.