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Hydrogels for growing immune cells and mini-organs

A scientific team has developed new hydrogels that serve as 3D culture systems for immune cells and organoids. They allow a higher rate of cell growth than traditional cultures. Among other applications, the team is focusing on growing cells for immunotherapies and obtaining mini-organs for pre-clinical trials.

A hydrogel sample in the centre of the plastic container. This sample has a rounded shape because of the tube in which it has been formed.

The hydrogels have been designed by the team led by Judith Guasch, from the Max Planck Partner Group "Dynamic Biomimetics for Cancer Immunotherapy" and from the Nanomol-Bio Group, from the Institute of Materials Science of Barcelona (ICMAB-CSIC).

The obtained hydrogels are porous and biocompatible materials. They are very versatile structurally and mechanically and can be loaded with active biomolecules, so they can be easily functionalised. These biomaterials serve as 3D culture systems for various cells, especially immune and tumour cells.

Among the applications, scientists focus mainly on two. On one hand, scientists plan to use the hydrogels as a culture medium to grow immune system cells. The aim is to solve one of the current problems in immunotherapies: how to obtain the largest possible number of cells with therapeutic functionality in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost. With these hydrogels, researchers have achieved cell growth rates higher than those achieved in standard culture systems.

"Implementing our 'tunable' hybrid hydrogel would represent a step forward in the change from traditional 2D culture media to 3D systems that mimic the original extracellular matrix, giving rise to more realistic results, which could be applied in different fields, such as cancer immunotherapy or the design of new preclinical models," says Guasch.

On the other hand, another application is the creation of organoids or mini-organs for research. Scientists have demonstrated that this system is effective for cultivating organoids derived from different (tumour) tissues. Organoids are defined as "mini-organs" capable of mimicking the shape and some functionalities of the tissue from which they originate.

"Each type of organoid will mainly serve to study the cancer from which the cells come, and in particular, the patient they come from". Judith Guasch

“It is now thought that organoids derived from patient cells could become one of the most promising preclinical tools, as they are more complex than 2D Petri dish systems, and also come from the same patient, unlike laboratory animals, whose physiology differs from that of humans” explains researcher Judith Guasch.

Each type of organoid, says Guasch, "will mainly serve to study the cancer from which the cells come, and in particular, the patient they come from". That is why "it seems they would be useful to make personalised therapeutic plans, similarly to the current methodology to treat urinary infections, where a bacterial culture is performed from the patient's sample and different antibiotics are studied".

This would make possible to study new drugs under more realistic conditions and to progress in the design of personalised therapies. "It is also expected that the use of organoids would  involve a significant reduction of laboratory animals," researchers conclude. The team has applied for a patent on this development and they plan to publish some of the results of this research in the coming months.

In this video, scientist Judith Guasch explains this research.