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New method in testing drug effectiveness shows promise in treating rare cancers

(Clara Vamvulescu/Daily Bruin)

By Amira Patrawala and Manya Kidambi

March 4, 2019 11:48 p.m.

UCLA researchers developed a new method of testing the efficiency of different cancer treatments by growing tumors derived from patients’ cancer cells in labs.

A team of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral faculty in the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center published a paper showing the technique was effective in determining the right treatments for patients with rare forms of cancer in Communications Biology, a Nature Research journal, Feb. 25.

Alice Soragni, senior author of the study, said she hopes this will expedite the process of finding more specific treatment for rare cancers. Currently, doctors analyze the entire genome of a tumor in order to study the effects of potential treatments, which typically takes a long time. Soragni said she and her team wanted to look for a quicker and more cost-effective approach.

“We want to be able to give each patient a specific drug,” Soragni said. “Every tumor is different and we really want to give patients something that will work for them instead of hoping the generic one will work.”

She said the researchers collected patients’ cells from an invasive surgery and placed them in a gel for about a week. Eventually, the cells multiplied until they created thousands of cells that all shared the same mutation.

Each patient’s sample of cells grew hundreds of organoids, or smaller and simplified versions of tumors, which researchers then injected with different cancer drugs to observe their responses. Researchers screened the results of the drugs using robots that can process the data within a few days.

Soragni said the team placed the cells in petri dishes in previous trials, but were only able to observe the cells’ growth into tumor organoids when they placed the cells in a gel environment with a distinct temperature and nutrients.

So far, the researchers have tested the organoids of four participants, and have made the most progress in determining effective treatments for a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer that affects only 200 women each year. Traditional chemotherapy for ovarian cancer had not been successful with this uncommon subtype of the disease.

“We can see unexpected drug sensitivities that one could not have even thought about,” Soragni said. “In the lab, we developed a mini tumor of the rare ovarian cancer tumor and … we found a very strong response to a very different specific targeted drug and that is exciting news.”

Sanaz Memarzadeh, a professor of gynecology, said there is already a high demand for this treatment technique, and the team is looking to expand to accommodate more patients.

Aside from analyzing more types of tumors, the team also aims to understand how the genome of certain tumors affects how they respond to different drugs.

The team is considering sequencing genomes of tumors that have been tested to understand if certain drugs respond more effectively to genomes with certain biomarkers.

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Amira Patrawala
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