Advancing Cancer Therapy Using a Novel Microfluidic device

1. Microfluidic device
SMART innovation – 3D microfluidic device with embedded electrodes Credit: SMART

At SMART (Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology), husband and wife duo, Dr. Andrea Pavesi and Dr. Giulia Adriani have developed a novel microfluidic device that enables the application of an electric field therapy to single or aggregated cancer cells [Tumour Treating Fields (TTFields)] that can help advance cancer therapy and may render customised therapy a reality.

Microfluidics is the science of controlling and processing small amounts of fluids in networks of small channels, with applications ranging from DNA chips to micro-thermal technologies. Microfluidic devices are integrated, portable devices that provides a 3D microenvironment for cells, allowing laboratory tests to be done swiftly.

The unique microfluidic device (2.5cm x 2.5cm) they have made is embedded with electrodes and made from PDMS (Polydimethylsiloxane), rendering the application of an alternating electric field to cancer cells in a 3D environment more physiologically relevant than in standard 2D cell culture.

TTFields is a novel treatment for cancer that utilises low intensity, alternating electric fields capable of disrupting cell division through physical interactions with key molecules during mitosis. In this reasearch they showed that the ability of the cancer cells to spread and multiply were reduced after electric field treatment. In fact, the proliferation rate of the treated cancer cell aggregates was 35% lower than the one of the untreated cells.

4.Images of stimulated (left) & dispersed non-stimulated cancer aggregat...
Images of stimulated (left) & dispersed non-stimulated cancer aggregates Credit: SMART

In comparison to the other three pillars of cancer treatment – surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, TTFields are non-invasive treatments that can target solid tumors and has already been FDA-approved in the treatment of Glioblastoma (brain cancer). 

This microfluidic device aims to expedite the research of TTFields for other solid cancer tumour cancers while reducing cost by using minimal reagents. Each microfluidic device costs less than $1 with experiments lasting only 3 days compared to experiments with mice model requiring more time. Furthermore, the device will enable clinicians to optimize parameters and duration of TTFields application, increasing efficiency of the therapy.

Microfluidic device (1)
L to R): PDMS microfluidic device with embedded electrodes; Lung cancer aggregates in the 3D hydrogel within device, in co-culture with non-cancerous cells; Injecting lung cancer cells into device Credit: SMART

When questioned on the possibility of personalized cancer treatment for patients, Dr. Andrea Pavesi said, “Doctors can actually test the intensity of electric fields needed for each different patient before dispensing the right settings for each TTFields patient. This increases efficacy of each patient’s treatment.”

Co-lead author and research scientist at SMART BioSyM, Dr Giulia Adriani (吉乌利亚), adds: “The fact that this device is able to host cancer cell aggregates, mimicking a 3D malignant tumour mass, as opposed to other standard in vitro approaches using single cancer cells on a 2D petri dish, means that we are able to have a more accurate picture of how the cancer mass will react to an electric field treatment. This will allow clinicians to find the right parameters and duration of TTFields application, rendering the therapy more effective.”

With TTFields gradually gaining traction and such innovative microfluidic devices being made, it is sure to help expedite cancer therapy and may one day, become the fourth pillar in the treatment of cancer.

This groundbreaking research ‘Engineering a 3D microfluidic culture platform for tumor-treating field application’ was published in Nature Scientific Reports.