Taking Cancer Research Out of the Culture Dish and Into 3-Dimensions

Taking Cancer Research Out of the Culture Dish and Into 3-Dimensions

Physical sciences join with medicine at UF to build a test track for cancer therapies

After decades of research, cancer is still the leading cause of death in the United States. Up to this point, cancer study has remained almost exclusively within the 2D bounds of traditional cell culture plates. Dr. Gregory Sawyer, professor and distinguished teaching scholar in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is revolutionizing cancer research.

“For the last 50 years, medicine has been trapped in the 2D blueprint of the standard culture dish,” said Sawyer. “But biology is inherently 3D. Biology is the antithesis of engineering; it’s freeform in its shape. It’s soft, wet, and squishy.” 

As head of the Cancer Engineering Lab at the University of Florida, Sawyer is leading the effort to apply engineering principles to cancer biology. His research team is a transdisciplinary group of engineers, biologists, and physical scientists who conduct cancer research in an engineering setting. Together, they are pioneering 3D cancer research.  

“At some level, cancer affects us all, and it’s a disease that deserves our best efforts. At the forefront of that is bringing the physical sciences together with medicine to build a test track where we can test cancers and therapies in a laboratory setting,” said Sawyer. “For the last 8 years, we’ve been working to bring this to fruition. Before we started doing this work, the vast majority of research was being done in 2D culture dishes.”

From the UF Cancer Engineering Lab to the Global Market

Recently, Sawyer and his collaborators, Dr. Juan Manuel Urueña, Ryan Smolcheck, Jack Famiglietti, and Duy Nguyen, received one of seven Invention of the Year Awards from UF Innovate for their 3D cell culture plates. UF Innovate featured the invention and honored the team at its annual Standing InnOvation event this fall.

Dr. Greg Sawyer, at left, and some of his collaborators receive their award for Invention of the Year from Vice President of UF Research, Dr. David Norton, far right, at Standing InnOvation 2021. The collaboration across departments produced culture plates that facilitate 3D printing and support living cells. They use them to mimic cancer and cancer treatments to determine how a patient’s cancer will respond.

The inventors originally designed these culture plates to facilitate 3D printing and support living cells. This invention takes that idea even further, testing cancer treatments and observing results and cell-to-cell interactions in 3D.  The plates overcome 2D boundaries by allowing researchers to mimic cancer and cancer treatments as they interact in the body.

Each plate can contain up to 24 separate tissue samples. Researchers can then immerse liquids including cancer treatments through a plate well containing the sample and can collect all of the waste for subsequent analyses.

Unlike former costly and tedious methods for studying cancer in 3D, these plates are injection-molded and can be mass-produced. This ensures easy access for other research groups and medical institutions to begin their own 3D cancer research.

“Our goal was always to have this lab not be the only lab in the world doing this type of work. We want to see centers like ours at every university and at every big pharma company around the world,” said Sawyer.

By having 3D culture plates widely available, researchers across the globe will be able to cultivate and support patient tissues and test different types of cancer therapies outside of the patient’s body.

Previously, it was nearly impossible to predict how a patient’s cancer might react to a treatment. The 3D culture plates create a system that mimics how the patient’s cancer will respond to different treatments in vivo. Researchers can apply cancer treatments through living cells without the need to test everything in the patient.

Tech Licensing for the win in cancer research

For Sawyer and his team, improving patient outcomes by accelerating discoveries and cures is the ultimate prize in cancer research. Sawyer credits UF Innovate | Tech Licensing with helping the team make global 3D cancer research a reality.

“We view UF Tech Licensing as an integral part of our research,” said Sawyer. “They work directly with us to help bring our work through the process, from patents to ultimately leaving the university and going out into industry where they can be made accessible to everybody.”

Over the past decade, Sawyer has worked extensively with Licensing Officer Lenny Terry, to patent and license much of his research. Sawyer currently holds more than 20 patents, including a series of patents for toughened fluoro-materials licensed to a chemical company and patents involving the 3D printing of cells.

“Greg [Sawyer] is one of our most prolific inventors,” said Terry. “When he calls our office, we pay attention because we know that it’s something worthy of a patent application.”

In addition to his extensive work with UF Innovate, Sawyer has long collaborated across departments at UF. The groundbreaking work coming out of the Cancer Engineering lab is a product of these collaborations and the strong research culture at UF. 

“When this research began, it seemed odd to do cancer research inside of an engineering environment. Through collaborations with College of Engineering, College of Medicine, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and UF innovate, all of this has been built and matured as a result of that support,” said Sawyer.  

Sarah Anderson Weaver is a marketing intern with UF Innovate | Tech Licensing. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida where she conducts research assessing the impacts of climate warming and land-use change on native pollinators. She has a B.A. in English – Creative Writing and a B.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Kansas. She is a passionate proponent of science communication, and she is interested in pursuing a career in technical writing or technology transfer after completing her doctoral degree.