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Mimicking the pancreas

Using a new type of gel, researchers have grown “organoids” from healthy and cancerous pancreatic cells.

October 26, 2021
pancreatic cells
MIT and Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute researchers have developed a synthetic gel that can be used to grow tiny pancreatic organoids, seen here, from human pancreatic cells.Courtesy of the researchers

Researchers at MIT and in the UK have developed a better way to model pancreatic cancer, one of the most difficult types of cancer to treat.

Using a specialized gel that allows cells to mimic the extracellular matrix surrounding the pancreas, the team was able to grow tiny replicas of the organ with cells obtained from human patients. These “organoids” could allow researchers to study interactions between pancreatic tumors and their environment.

Traditionally, it has been difficult to grow pancreatic tissue in a manner that replicates both cancerous cells and their environment, because once the cells are removed from the body, they lose their cancerous traits. But the new gel supports the growth of both types of tissue.

Based on polyethylene glycol, the gel is completely synthetic and can be produced easily and consistently in the lab, a challenge with some of the gels available now. It can also be used to grow other types of tissue, including intestinal and endometrial tissue. This could make the gel useful for studying lung, colorectal, and other cancers as well as endometriosis, a condition that causes the tissue lining the uterus to grow elsewhere. 

The researchers have filed a patent on the technology and are licensing it to a company that could produce the gel commercially.

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