electrospun synthetic cell scaffolds
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In cancer research, electrospun synthetic cell scaffolds hold the potential to replace animal testing as they are more consistent than animal cells.

The idea of scientists changing the environment in which cancerous cells divide which enables them to disrupt cancer growth is growing in popularity in the field of cancer research. Conducting experiments using animals has been the primary way in which researchers have tested this theory

Using electrospun synthetics, Smitha Rao aims to replace animal testing in cancer research in her cell scaffolding research.

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Credits: Kelley Christensen, Michigan Technological University

At Michigan Technological University, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Smitha Rao conducted research aiming to replace animal testing in cancer research. The journal IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology published this study.

The biomedical engineering students at Michigan Tech Brennan Vogl, an undergraduate student, Carolynn Que, a  master’s student, and Samerender Hanumantharao, a doctoral student are the coauthors of this study.

Standardizing with Synthetics

Just like how a well-built house requires a strong foundation, the cells require something called an extra-cellular matrix (ECM) on which it can grow inside the body. Researchers need to source the matrices from somewhere to study how cells grow on ECMs.

Hanumantharao said, “Than using cells from different kinds of animals for research, synthetic ECMs are more consistent and they are created by electrospinning matrices from polymers such as polycaprolactone.”

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Rao said, “Standardizing the process and using synthetic materials to keep the same chemical formulation of a scaffold while changing the physical structure of the fibers that are produced has been the focus in my lab.” By changing just one aspect of the experiment, the voltage, Rao and her fellow researchers can compare separate cell lines with different scaffold alignments. The shape of the scaffolds can be altered, whether aligned or mesh or honeycombed, by changing the voltage at which the polymer is spun.

To test the efficacy of the electrospun scaffolds, Rao and her fellow researchers used four different cell lines; MDA-MB-231, a triple-negative adenocarcinoma-metastatic, a very difficult-to-detect cancer; MCF10AneoT, a premalignant cell line; MCF-7, a breast adenocarcinoma; and 184B5, which is normal breast tissue, as a control.

Rao said, “How and why cancer cells metastasize can be studied now. Why the pre-metastatic cells become metastatic can be understood in a true 3D system and to study signaling pathways that change between pre-malignant and malignant cells, this can provide tools to other researchers.”

Avenues for Future Research

The research has additionally uncovered information for another study area: Knowing the type of cellular environment in which malignant cancer cells grow the most. The research team discovered that the premalignant cells preferred the aligned scaffolds, the adenocarcinoma cells favored mesh scaffolds while the triple-negative breast cancer cells preferred honeycomb scaffolds.

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To make the area around a tumor in a person’s body a far less hospitable place for cancer cells to grow, scientists may be able to engineer cell scaffolding— shape, structure, and stiffness, in the future.