Developing human organotypic perfused bioreactors for physiologically reproducible therapeutic compound screening of a tumour microenvironment

Project Background

The tumour microenvironment is complex and formed of multiple cell types, non-cellular components and interstitial fluid. The development of a tumour is guided by interactions in the microenvironment including the dynamics of interstitial fluid, microcirculation of blood vessels and the immune system. This complexity leads to tumour heterogeneity and heterogeneity between tumours of various origins and at differing stages of progression. Development of new therapeutics relies on screening in an accurate recapitulation of a tumour and the microenvironment in which it resides, which is currently not reflected in preclinical models. 

Why we funded it

This training fellowship aims to replace the requirement of animals for preclinical drug validation by developing a bioreactor culture platform to more accurately represent a tumour microenvironment.

Approximately 2,300 mice per year are used in oncological preclinical validation studies at the University of Oxford, with the majority of studies using therapeutics proven efficient in two-dimensional in vitro models. After in vivo studies ~60% of cancer therapeutics are excluded due to ineffectiveness. Using the bioreactor system has the potential to reduce attrition of cancer therapeutics by providing a better setting for in vitro preclinical studies. If all drugs that are likely to be excluded during in vivo studies were identified earlier by in vitro screening, then animal usage in preclinical drug validation studies could be reduced to ~900 animals per year at the University of Oxford alone.

Research Methods

Dr Wan and colleagues have developed a prototype bioreactor culture platform capable of supporting 3D “micro-tissues” formed either from established cancer cell lines or from small amounts of patient tissue1. The small amount of tissue needed makes this system ideal for sustaining cancers isolated from the brain or pancreas as clinical samples are rare. Micro-tissues can be cultured in combination with other cells from the microenvironment, such as immune cells, in a spatiotemporal manner. The bioreactor design also incorporates the perfusion of culture media to mimic the flow of the interstitial environment of tumours and resultant fluid dynamics. Dr Wan will validate the in vitro culture system by treating with cancer therapeutics known to impact the tumour microenvironment and observing effects on the micro-tissue.  This system allows for screening and validation of cancer therapeutics in a physiologically relevant microenvironment prior to in vivo testing.

1  Wan, X. et al. (2016) Three-dimensional perfused tumour spheroid model for anti-cancer drug screening. Biotechnology letters 38 (8): 1389-1395 doi:10.1007/s10529-016-2035-1


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Principal investigator

Dr Xiao Wan


University of Oxford

Grant reference number


Award date:

Nov 2017 - Nov 2019

Grant amount