Colorectal Cells Grown into Organoids (Image credit: Hubrecht Organoid Technology (HUB))

Small but mighty

Miniature organs grown from patients’ cells could help to quickly identify and optimize targeted anticancer therapies.

Recent technical advances mean that miniature replicas of many tissues can be grown in the laboratory. These so-called organoids provide scientists with model systems that are not as limited as simple, two-dimensional sheets of cells growing in a petri dish, and less labor and resource intensive than studies using laboratory animals. In particular, organoids grown from tumor cells from cancer patients have been suggested as having numerous advantages over both laboratory-grown cancer cells and mice when it comes to testing potential new anticancer drugs.

Mutations in a gene called KRAS are common in many types of cancer including colon cancer. Tumors with these mutations are difficult to treat and so far virtually all attempts to generate compounds that selectively interfere with the KRAS protein encoded by the mutant gene have failed. Instead, drugs that indirectly inhibit this protein’s effects by targeting other proteins in the same signaling pathway are currently being tested on patients. However, there is still a need for better ways to pre-test whether these drugs will be effective in humans without having to expose the patient to side effects or an ineffective drug.

Now, Carla Verissimo, René Overmeer, Bas Ponsioen and colleagues have tested clinically-used KRAS pathway inhibitors and drug combinations against normal colon organoids and colon cancer organoids derived from patients with colon cancer. Gene editing techniques were used to introduce KRAS mutations into some of the normal organoids grown from healthy tissue, and into cancer organoids grown from tumors that had a normal copy of the KRAS gene. In all cases, only those organoids with mutant forms of the KRAS gene were resistant to the treatments. Furthermore, when organoids with the KRAS mutation were treated with some combination therapies that are currently being tested in clinical trials, the tumors stopped growing but the tumor cells failed to die. Similar drug treatments on mice carrying human colon cancer organoids confirmed these results, which is in line with previous studies where tumor tissue from human patients was transplanted into mice.

These findings show that collections of tumor organoids from multiple patients could help researchers to quickly identify and optimize targeted anticancer therapies before they are incorporated into clinical trials. In the future, clinical studies are needed to verify how accurately the testing of cancer drugs on organoids predicts whether the drug will or will not work in patients.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Targeting mutant RAS in patient-derived colorectal cancer organoids by combinatorial drug screening” (November 15, 2016).
eLife is an open-access journal for outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.