Scientists create breast on-a-chip for cancer research

Washington: Scientists have reproduced portions of the female breast in a tiny slide-sized model what they call "breast on-a-chip" which could help detect breast cancer early and treat it more effectively.

The model, developed by Purdue University researchers in the US, mimics the branching mammary duct system, where most breast cancers begin.

It will serve as an "engineered organ" to study the use of nanoparticles to detect and target tumour cells within the ducts, said the researchers who reported their study in the journal Integrative Biology.

"Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in most countries, and in the US alone nearly 40,000 women lost their lives to it this past year," said Sophie Lelièvre, who led the research at the Purdue Center for Cancer Research.

"We`ve known that the best way to detect this cancer early and treat it effectively would be to get inside the mammary ducts to evaluate and treat the cells directly, and this is the first step in that direction."

The researchers said they would be able to introduce magnetic nanoparticles through openings in the nipple, use a magnetic field to guide them through the ducts where they would attach to cancer cells and then reverse the magnetic field to retract any excess nanoparticles.

The nanoparticles could carry contrast agents to improve mammography, fluorescent markers to guide surgeons to treat the cancer, said co-author James Leary of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

"Nanoparticles can be designed to latch on to cancer cells and illuminate them, decreasing the size of a tumour that can be detected through mammography from 5 to 2 millimetres which translates into finding the cancer 10 times earlier in its evolution," Leary said.

"There also is great potential for nanoparticles to deliver anticancer agents directly to the cancer cells, eliminating the need for standard chemotherapy that circulates through the entire body causing harmful side effects."

In the past, physicians have tried to access the mammary ducts through the nipple, injecting fluid solutions to try to wash out cells that could be examined and used for a diagnosis of cancer.

However, that approach could only reach the first third of the breast due to fluid pressure from the ducts, which branch and become smaller and smaller as they approach the glands that produce milk, Leary said.

"The idea is that nanoparticles with a magnetic core can float through the naturally occurring fluid in the ducts and be pulled by a magnet as opposed to being pushed with pressure," he said.

"We think they could reach all the way to the back of the ducts, where it is believed most breast cancers originate. Of course, we are only at the earliest stages and many tests need to be done," Leary added.