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The opportunities and challenges of cancer-on-chip models in immunotherapy

IMI-funded IMSAVAR reviewed the state of ‘cancer-on-chip’ technology. While promising, problems with manufacturing to scale make them impractical for the moment.

25 February 2022
Breast cancer image by Emily frost via Shutterstock
iCoCs can be tailor-made to answer specific questions, and they do a really good job of replicating the tumour microenvironment. Image by Emily Frost via Shutterstock.

Cancer immunotherapy, also known as immuno-oncology, is a form of cancer treatment that uses the power of the body’s own immune system to prevent and treat cancer.

Cancer immunotherapy faces several obstacles, however. One problem is the lack of cell or animal models that are good replicas of human immunity and that can be used to accurately test and predict efficacy and safety of immunotherapies. Animal models tend to fail because they are poor replicas of human carcinogenesis, human immune response, and response to cancer therapy. Also, in humans, cancer is often associated with aging which is not reflected in mouse models.

In recent years, a new development called immunocompetent Cancer-on-Chip (iCoC) models have emerged as alternative. These powerful tools are models of human cancer and its complex interaction with the immune system in the lab.

By combining technology that can fabricate structures at a miniscule scale with tissues and other biomaterials, tissue engineering and cell biology, these models can produce human-like insights for immunotherapy research.

Fit-for-purpose, precisely tailorable models with short development time

The IMI-funded IMSAVAR project published a review about the current state, opportunities, and future applications of iCoCs. They report on the nascent technology’s many advantages: iCoCs can be tailor-made to answer specific questions, and they do a really good job of replicating the tumour microenvironment. They also allow this microenvironment to be manipulated and probed. Their minute detail really allows researchers to zoom in on their component parts, and they boast a short development time.

The authors of the review emphasise that the big benefits of iCoCs are the flexibility in design, the quality of the readouts they produce, and the ability to have high model complexity in a fully-human setting. These factors mean they offer a lot of promise for things like studying the underlying workings of adoptive cell therapy, immune checkpoint therapy, cytokine therapy, oncolytic virus therapy, and cancer vaccines.

Beyond basic research into immune-cancer interaction and efficacy and safety studies, the models, say the authors, could be used for personalised immunotherapy screening. However, wider adoption and access to the technology among the research community and the pharmaceutical industry is still hampered by a number of challenges. Most of the models require experts to handle them, which includes not only chip fabrication but also tissue generation and experimentation. By increasing their availability through standardisation and commercialisation efforts, setting-up of specialised infrastructures and training initiatives for end-users, it will be possible to incorporate them in the different stages of cancer immunotherapy research and development.

IMSAVAR is supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a partnership between the European Union and the European pharmaceutical industry.