Application of a 3D hydrogel-based model to replace use of animals for passaging patient-derived xenografts

Project Background

Cancer treatments are becoming increasingly personalised, informed by both the genotypic and phenotypic characteristics of a patient’s tumour. In order to screen and validate therapeutics in a relevant clinical setting, the use of patient-derived xenograft (PDX) mouse models has increased. Patient tumour tissue is typically isolated and subcutaneously implanted into an immunodeficient mouse, where it can be expanded and maintained by serially passaging cells from mouse to mouse. These models recapitulate tumour heterogeneity as well as retaining molecular profiling specific to the patient but human stromal cells supporting the tumour are replaced with murine stromal cells after implantation. Success rate of implantation is also low favouring particular mutations and aggressive tumours. Better representation of a tumour at a preclinical setting increases the predictivity of the model a response to cancer therapeutics.

Why we funded it

This PhD Studentship aims to replace the need for PDX mice in the long-term expansion of primary breast cancer cells with an in vitro hydrogel-based model.

Publications involving PDX mice are increasing, with the number of publications approximately doubling every two years. In 2014/2015 Google Scholar indicated 6,860 papers were published using PDX models. A standard efficacy study typically requires an average of 20 animals with a further five required to generate the donor cells needed for the study. This gives an estimate of 17,500 animals used for PDX studies per year globally. With the continued increase in publications this will likely increase further, with an estimated 70,000 animals needed for PDX studies in 2020. This estimate is solely based on published studies and excludes animals used in industry.   

Research Methods

The hydrogel for this model is formed from a self-assembling peptide creating a bespoke matrix environment with similar physical properties to the extracellular matrix (ECM). Further improvements to the model can be made by adding ECM components, such as collagens, glycoproteins and proteoglycans, as it is known differential expression of these molecules contributes to tumour progression. One of the current issues of in vitro culture is the ability of cancer cells to adapt to in vitro conditions, which can result in alterations to both genetic information and biological properties. To ensure genotypic and phenotypic stability after time in culture and passaging, the in vitro hydrogel-based model will be verified by comparison with the original patient tissues.

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PhD Studentship



Principal investigator

Dr Anna Grabowska


University of Nottingham


Dr Cathy Merry

Grant reference number


Award date:

Apr 2017 - Mar 2020

Grant amount