CLEMSON — Clemson University bioengineer Karen Burg and her colleagues in the Institute for Biological Interfaces of Engineering are developing a new, integrative means of studying the complex behavior of cancer cells in breast tissue that may one day change the way doctors treat the disease.

With support from a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the researchers are building scaffolds that mimic the three-dimensional structure of human tissue. They use a machine called a bio-fabricator to deposit cancer cells at strategic locations inside the 3-D structures, just like tumors in human flesh.

“The 3D structures are high-fidelity test systems and we can culture cancer cells in them, experimenting to see which treatments are the most effective,” said Burg, who holds the Hunter Endowed Chair in Bioengineering and is interim dean of the graduate school. “Depending on whether the person is a late-stage cancer patient or an early-stage cancer patient will make a big difference in the type of three-dimensional structure that we would build.”

Some of the bioengineered building blocks are as simple as a small pool of gel, while others are more sophisticated and can be cut in custom shapes and stacked.

“If you think of peanut butter — you know, nuts suspended in paste essentially — that’s similar to what we would like to be able to do: build tissues that have features within them,” she explained. “So the nuts in the peanut butter might be similar to tumor nodules.”

“This work contributes to the basic understanding of how cells function and communicate with the environment in a three-dimensional tissue structure which is a challenging and unsolved problem,” said Friedrich Srienc, a program director in the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering, which funded the research.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0736007. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.