New Tools Needed
(August 5th, 2016) If ever we want to win the fight against cancer, we have to join our forces. Last month, four international research bodies did exactly this and created the Human Cancer Models Initiative. Their goal? Developing better tools to study and, eventually, defeat the disease.
Studying cancer has been on the research agenda for many decades. Still, the progress is slow. Could it be that cancer researchers simply lack good-enough models to mimic tumour growth and progression? Cancer cell lines, for instance, a widely-used tool in cancer research, do not even closely mirror the immense genetic diversity of patients’ cancer cells. To overcome these issues and many more, Cancer Research UK (CRUK), Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, US National Cancer Institute (NCI) and The Hubrecht Organoid Technology Foundation allied to set up the Human Cancer Models Initiative (HCMI).
“The goal of HCMI is to address the need for better tools to study cancer biology in a preclinical, laboratory setting. Through the HCMI, institutions will create new cancer models, which will better resemble the tissue architecture, diversity, and complexity of human tumours than currently available cell lines,” explains Louis Staudt, director of the Center for Cancer Genomics at NCI.
One of the new models Staudt and colleagues have in mind is the so-called organoid - three-dimensional organ-buds, derived from stem cells, which closely resemble the real organ, healthy or diseased. Robert Vries, executive director of the Hubrecht Organoid Technology Foundation, says: “The recent development of the organoid model, but also models of other labs, have indicated that we can indeed make model systems which are much more representative for the patients that we want to study. Furthermore, it is now widely accepted that in order to compare data and studies between labs and countries, we need well characterised databases and biobanks that have collected data and material by the same method.” Therefore, the HCMI wants to standardise cancer research techniques and accelerate the information flow from doctor to researcher.
HCMI directly supports the Precision Medicine Initiative set up by President Obama in January 2015. “Precision oncology approaches seek to understand the genomic alterations that drive cancer and treat those specific alterations in each patient’s tumour. When a patient presents with a certain genomic alteration or combination of alterations, HCMI models will provide great tools for predicting the tumour’s growth, treatment outcomes, and potential for developing resistance. The clinical and genomic data of these models will be made available through the Genomic Data Commons, a resource that will increasingly serve as a national cancer knowledge system. Although HCMI models will not directly expand precision medicine clinical trials, what we learn from using them in research, we hope will have many clinical applications,” says Staudt. As well as generating the Genetic Data Commons, the collaboration plans to set up the Organoid Biobank that will provide tissue for functional assays.
“If we can learn to develop robust models with relative ease, models like the ones generated by HCMI may become the real workhorses of precision medicine. If we can accurately model a real patient’s tumour, then we might be able to test treatment options on the model in a clinical setting, before recommending the best treatment to the patient. HCMI will help us see if that’s possible,” concludes Staudt.