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Microfluidic techniques for cancer therapies

Perhaps the most significant challenge in all of medicine is the need for more effective treatments for cancer, which causes one of every four deaths in the United States and bears a direct cost to our healthcare system of close to $100bn annually.

Over the past several decades, therapeutic approaches to cancer have developed around surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, yet with over 600,000 new cases of cancer per year in the United States, one-year survival rates for some cancers are below 20%.

In response to this tremendous challenge, new approaches to cancer treatment have been emerging, ranging from hormone therapies to treat breast and prostate cancer, to targeted therapies aimed at inhibiting angiogenesis or cell growth, to a host of novel immunotherapies that harness the body’s immune cells to fight the cancer. Since up to 90% of cancer deaths are due to metastasis of the primary cancer site,1 early detection and strategies to prevent metastasis have also risen to the fore. In this article, we focus on cancer therapy and the role that a new class of microfluidic technologies is playing in contributing to tools and platform technologies that refine and accelerate cancer treatments in ways that extend well beyond conventional laboratory systems.

Microfluidics technologies have been in development for the past three decades, with early progress and demonstrations focusing on lab-on-a-chip systems for bioanalysis and clinical diagnostics.2 Over the past decade, the field has branched in several new and exciting directions, many of which have the potential to address longstanding challenges in health care, such as the need for new tools to assess the safety and efficacy of candidate therapeutics in preclinical development.3

Here, we will focus on three applications of microfluidics technologies that have the potential to revolutionise cancer therapeutics, each of which is currently being developed by research scientists at Draper and collaborating institutions. These three approaches include organ-on-chip models for diseases and for mimicking processes such as tumour intravasation in scalable microfluidic formats, microfluidic systems capable of ex vivo recapitulation of tumour-immune and tumour-drug interactions using human patient biopsy samples, and safer and more efficient microfluidic systems for manipulating stem cells and immune cells for adoptive cell transfer (ACT) technologies.

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