Chemical engineer receives grant to develop novel tumor-mimicking biomaterial

The material may help enable better, personalized pediatric brain cancer treatments


By Gabrielle Stewart

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the United States, with brain cancer causing the most fatalities. A significant hurdle in treatment for pediatric brain cancer is tailoring treatment plans to the variation and complexity of cancer cells in individual patients, according to Amir Sheikhi, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering.

With a grant from the Meghan Rose Bradley Foundation, Sheikhi plans to develop a novel biomaterial that could be used to simulate the response of pediatric brain cancers to different approaches — and customized with cells from the patient to enable personalized treatments.

“The current treatments are not as efficient as they could be because the disease is unique to each patient,” Sheikhi said. “We are very hopeful that we can make a difference in the quality of life of people, particularly children, in this project.”

Sheikhi and his research team aim to design a new polymer-based biomaterial. This class of materials comprises chained-together molecules that, among other activities, can mimic the growth environment of cancer cells inside a tumor. The researchers plan to use soft, water-absorbent microengineered gels as a scaffold for patient-derived cells, which can then grow and form tissues.

“The polymer will replicate the microenvironment that cells reside on inside the tumor,” Sheikhi said. “That environment is made of a range of biochemical and topological cues, so when cancer cells are added to it, they behave similarly to how they behave in patients’ tumors.”

The researchers will begin by building a system using a single cancer cell on a simple scaffold and progressively increase the complexity of the system with the goal of mimicking a tumor outside of the human body that can be used to test different medications.

Sheikhi also plans for the system to be easy for others to use regardless of scientific training.

“We are very interested in developing a technology that is translational and has all the scientific standards to mimic a real tumor but is convenient so that people using it don’t need experience in biomaterials,” he said. “Ultimately, when the system is fully ready in the future, we envision that all medical providers or researchers would need to do is add the right cells to the right location, culture them based on our recommendations and then have a functional imitation tumor to test treatments with.”

Sheikhi will collaborate with several neuroscience experts, including James Connor, distinguished professor of neuroscience and anatomy and vice chair for research in the Penn State College of Medicine’s Department of Neurosurgery.

The Meghan Rose Bradley Foundation was established in 2004 in memory of Bradley, an honors student, multi-sport athlete and competitive dancer who died at the age of 16 from brain cancer.


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