A new 3D strategy to study neuroblastoma

Our body has 3 dimensions: height, width and depth. Every single part of our body grows in the same 3 dimensions. This is true for cancer cells. Researchers use different ways to study cancer cells behaviour, how they grow and spread. We grow cells in the flasks, where they change their structure and shape and become flat losing one dimension. This is a very popular approach. We also grow cells in mice, where cells keep their 3D shape and mimic their behaviour to one observed in humans.

It is well known that we need to give a different amount of drug to kill cancer cells grown in flasks and in mice. This, in turn, delays the development of new drugs. Why does it happen this way? So, the drug works only on one side of the cell when they grow on the flat surface. In contrast, in mice, drug surrounds the cancer cell habitat and attacks cells at the edge first and then getting to those at the core. So we need more drug to kill cancer cells in mice.

We decided to design a new way to grow cancer cells that recreate their growth in 3 dimensions as in the human or mice body. We used special cotton wool like sponges as a new home for cancer cells and populated them with cancer cells. At the next step, we gave cells the drug at the different amount and checked what happened.

To understand cell fitness we stained them with red and blue dyes. On the left bottom side of the image, we see an equal amount of red and blue dyes telling us that cells were healthy and fit. Cells did not get any drug. When we gave a little amount of the drug but enough to kill cells in the flask, the balance of red and blue dyes was the same telling us that nothing really happened (the image in the middle). Cells were feeling well and healthy. The right bottom image has only blue dye. In this case, cells were given the amount of drug enough to destroy cancer cells in mice or humans. The lack of red dye tells us that this time the drug worked and killed the cancer cells.

We found that the drug killed cells on sponges only at doses enough to do the same in mice.

So, we concluded the new tactic to grow cancer cells in 3D on cotton-like sponges can bridge the gap between traditional way and animal models. This new strategy to grow cells on sponges should help to understand cancer cell behaviour better and accelerate the discovery and development of new effective drugs for neuroblastoma and other cancers. This, in turn, will make the outlook for little patients better and improve their quality of life.

This work has been published in Acta Biomaterialia and presented recently at the Oral Posters Session at the 54th Irish Association for Cancer Research Conference 2018.

This study was supported by Neuroblastoma UK and National Children’s Research Centre.

You can find more at

A physiologically relevant 3D collagen-based scaffold–neuroblastoma cell system exhibits chemosensitivity similar to orthotopic xenograft models.

IACR Meeting 2018 Programme

Goodbye 2017! Hello 2018!

When I look back on my journey in 2017, there were many junctions, traffic lights and stops as well as ups and downs. Junctions were to make decisions, while traffic lights and stops – to be patient. Ups and downs were my feelings of satisfaction. The good mix of both kept me to stay human. It is not the number of grants received that matters it is who around you. I have met genuinely curiosity-driven students who made this journey fascinating and very special.

My most memorable Ups  were the successful examination and graduation of my PhD student John Nolan, organisation and chairing the IACR Meeting session: Challenges in Childhood Cancers, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the Gala Dinner with the CFNCRF, the launch of my very own research team thanks to the funding by the NCRC and the Neuroblastoma UK, the successful completion of two final year undergraduate and two MSc projects, and welcoming the new PhD student Tom Frawley.

My team is growing and I am looking forward to 2018!

Goodbye 2017 and Hello 2018!

Feeling good, excited and accomplished

This week can be rated for sure as feeling good, excited and accomplished. A UK based charity – Neuroblastoma UK has awarded a small grant to characterise a pre-clinical model of neuroblastoma which is a collaborative project between our lab and Tissue Engineering Research Group at RCSI. This project will study features of neuroblastoma cells growing on collagen-based scaffolds. The NBUK grant will contribute to one of the most expensive parts of the study – characterisation of cell secreting proteins using antibody-based profiling platforms.

Another research was accomplished yesterday –  John Nolan had his Voice Viva examination and successfully defended his PhD Thesis. This 3 year PhD project was funded by the National Children’s Research Centre. As his supervisor, I am delighted for him and wish him best of luck in his research career.