Feature
Pioneering cancer technology aims to deliver more precise treatment

Cancer patients could eventually be spared needless gruelling treatment by pioneering technology which could allow therapies to be personalised for individual patients.

Strathclyde prospective spin-out company, ScreenIn3D Ltd, based in the Technology and Innovation Centre, is developing a lab-on-a-chip platform called ONCO-Chip3D, which is designed to make cancer treatments much more precise. 

Precision medicine already allows doctors to select treatments most likely to help patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease. But ScreenIn3D’s technology allows further improvements of therapy selection based on testing tissue samples which are taken from the patient’s tumour.

The platform is based on microfluidic technology, which enables the miniaturisation of cell-based tests through precise control of fluids and particles transport in very small amounts

ONCO-Chip3D allows several different drugs and various treatment combinations to be tested at the same time on micro-tumours developed from the patient biopsy. The platform allows researchers to carry out up to 100-times more testing on biopsy tissue than existing technologies, which can result in a more efficient and effective screening and treatment process.

Importantly, results can be delivered within a week from biopsy collection, allowing quick treatment selection for the patient.

Dr Michele Zagnoni, Chief Scientific Officer at ScreenIn3D and Reader in the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Strathclyde, said: “We are developing a technology which massively improves on the existing tests that can be done on a cancer patient’s biopsy.

“Everybody and every cancer is different, but the approach that has been taken for many years when deciding a treatment is to apply a ‘one-size-fits-many’ to all patients.

“There is so much more that we can do to make better, more informed decisions about what treatment to recommend. We hope to improve, and maybe remove, the ‘hit and miss’ element of some cancer treatments.”

Dr Michele Zagnoni.

There is so much more that we can do to make better, more informed decisions about what treatment to recommend. We hope to improve, and maybe remove, the ‘hit and miss’ element of some cancer treatments.

Genetic information

The idea of personalising treatment is mostly based on people’s genes – the genetic information that each person has.

Dr Zagnoni added: “For few cancer types there are very effective treatments that are applied according to their specific genes, but this is still a small percentage of the total.

“The challenge is in the complexity of the disease and the diversity from patient to patient. Not only the cancer cells but also everything else around them contribute to treatment outcome. Therefore, using patient tumour samples and increasing the number of tests that can be carried out on them is a key aspect for improving treatment selection.”

 The process involves taking a tissue sample from a patient’s tumour and processing it into a series of micro-samples containing many of the characteristics of the original tumour.

These samples are placed inside compartments within the microfluidic ONCO-Chip3D system and treated with a few micro-litres of fluid containing different concentrations and combinations of drugs.

The ‘micro-tumours’ are then left to incubate for as long as required, before the results are analysed and the most promising treatment for the patient is estimated.

Closeup of ONCO-Chip3D.

If we prove the predictive value of our tests, the hope is that our technology could be deployed in every hospital in the world, with precision cancer treatment our ultimate goal.

In vitro testing

In vitro testing on patient biopsies shows what treatment is killing the tumour cells, but researchers still need to determine if that treatment is actually given to the patient, if it will have the same results, and to what extent.

Dr Zagnoni added: “Our preliminary studies have shown it is possible and data is available on five different cancer types.

“In some of those, we have shown there is a correlation between what we’ve found and clinical data. But what is also very important is negative correlation. So if it turns out that these treatments being applied to a patient are not effective, then maybe we shouldn’t give them, as chemotherapy side effects will make them feel incredibly unwell for effectively no advantage.”

The company is focussing their efforts in increasing the statistical significance of their results and to test it on as many patients for as many cancer types as possible.

For each cancer type, they are aiming to have data from between 80 and 100 patients.

Dr Zagnoni added: “The feedback received from oncologists collaborating with us has been positive.

“If we prove the predictive value of our tests, the hope is that our technology could be deployed in every hospital in the world, with precision cancer treatment our ultimate goal.

“We are already at the stage where the technology works robustly in our hands.”

Commercialisation

ScreenIn3D hopes to commercialise the technology to make the test, but further work is needed to fully automate the workflow and the company is seeking private investment.

Dr Zagnoni says that as well as improving cancer survival, the technology could potentially save pharmaceutical companies millions of pounds during clinical trials.

He added: “Trials may have several hundreds of patients and cost in the region of £80,000 per patient. Being able to identify who in the cohort is going to be a non-respondent and would get no benefit from the trial, could have great impact.

“The technology could be applied to a range of cancer preclinical assays but also to other diseases.

“We have demonstrated our screening can be adapted to using human brain stem cells and human liver cells.

“It could be employed for cost-effective large combination studies using already approved drugs that can be repurposed for other diseases.”

The project to develop ONCO-Chip3D has been initially supported by Medical Research Scotland and AMS Biotechnology (Europe) Ltd (AMSBIO), a global supplier of life science products. CENSIS, the Scottish Innovation Centre for sensing, imaging, and the internet of things, provided funding support for assay development.

Scottish Enterprise provided funding for a SMART Feasibility project for product development of the technology.

3D illustration of a dividing cancer cell with a cell surface