Test-tube model of breast cancer to replace animal experiments

In collaboration with the Press Association

An award-winning team of UK scientists has developed a three-dimensional (3-D) model of human breast cancer in a test-tube which should help to reduce the number of animals used and improve the quality of cancer research.

Animals play a vital role during research into new drugs, but scientists are constantly looking for ways to replace them in medical experiments.

Now, a team of scientists at Queen Mary's, University of London, has developed a 3-D model of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a condition where cells inside the ducts of the breast have started to become cancerous but have not yet invaded the rest of the breast.

DCIS accounts for around one fifth of all cases of breast cancer.

The model is grown from donated human cells from both cancerous and healthy breast tissue and accurately replicates what happens in normal and malignant breast cells, containing all of the types of cells that are present in breast tissue.

It is capable of being used for complex studies including the identification and screening of new therapeutic targets and could replace experiments that currently require laboratory animals.

As well as reducing the need for test animals, the advance is important as animal models of cancer often differ significantly from human cancer.

The research has earned the scientists a prestigious prize from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), which was awarded at the House of Lords and sponsored by Lord Sainsbury, former minister for science and innovation.

As well as enabling researchers to test potential new breast cancer treatments, the new model should also allow them to investigate the earlier stages and progression of the disease.

Dr Deborah Holliday, who worked on the model at Queen Mary's and is now based at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine, said that this kind of technique is the way forward for breast cancer research.

She said: "This is an exciting development in both breast cancer research and the replacement of animals so I am thrilled at the award.

"Understanding how individual cell populations contribute to cancer progression is essential in increasing our understanding of breast cancer and identifying new targets for therapy. Being able to model this in a complex human 3-D culture model provides us with a valuable tool to investigate this without the use of animal experiments."

Henry Scowcroft, Cancer Research UK's information manager, said: "This fascinating research is at an early stage, but could one day help bring down the number of animals involved in laboratory research on cancer. We're deeply committed to the replacement, refinement and reduction of animal use. Research like this represents important progress in achieving this."

This research was funded by the Dr Hadwen Trust.

References

Holliday, D., Brouilette, K., Markert, A., Gordon, L., & Jones, J. (2009). Novel multicellular organotypic models of normal and malignant breast: tools for dissecting the role of the microenvironment in breast cancer progression Breast Cancer Research, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/bcr2218