Researchers design miniature bone marrow organoids 

Researchers design miniature bone marrow organoids 
© iStock/Maksim Tkachenko

Scientists from Oxford University and the University of Birmingham have made the first bone marrow ‘organoids’. 

The bone marrow organoids include all the key components of human marrow and the technology allows for the screening of multiple anti-cancer drugs at the same time, as well as testing personalised treatments for individual cancer patients. 

The researchers described the method using human stem cells grown in a specifically designed 3D ‘scaffold’, that generates the key cell types that exist in the human bone marrow.  

The new study is published in Cancer Discovery. 

What are organoids?

According to Harvard, Organoids are tiny, self-organised three-dimensional tissue cultures derived from stem cells. The stem cells can divide continuously, and produce different types of cells. Scientists learnt how to create the right environment for stem cells so they can self-organise, which form tiny structures that resemble miniature organs.  

Revolutionising cancer treatment

The new organoids can keep cancer cells from blood cancer patients alive in the lab, which is very difficult to accomplish. As a result, doctors may be able to test customised treatments for specific patients on their cancer cells, to find the treatments most likely to treat cancer.  

Dr Abdullah Khan, a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and first author of the study, said: “Remarkably, we found that the cells in their bone marrow organoids resemble real bone marrow cells not just in terms of their activity and function, but also in their architectural relationships – the cell types ‘self-organise’ and arrange themselves within the organoids just like they do in human bone marrow in the body.” 

This architecture allowed the team to analyse the cells in the bone marrow interact to support normal blood cell production, and how this is disrupted in bone marrow fibrosis, which subsequently leads to bone marrow failure. This can develop in patients with certain types of blood cancers and is incurable. 

 Senior study author Professor Bethan Psaila, a haematology medical doctor as well as a Research Group Leader at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, said: “To properly understand how and why blood cancers develop, we need to use experimental systems that closely resemble how real human bone marrow works, which we haven’t really had before. It’s really exciting to now have this terrific system, as finally, we are able to study cancer directly using cells from our patients, rather than relying on animal models or other simpler systems that do not properly show us how the cancer is developing in the bone marrow in actual patients.” 

Dr Khan also added: “This is a huge step forward, enabling insights into the growth patterns of cancer cells and potentially a more personalised approach to treatment. 

“Developing a protocol that enabled us to grow the organoids reproducibly and at scale was a challenge, particularly as we were working between labs in Birmingham and Oxford over the pandemic, so I spent a lot of time frantically driving organoids down the A40. However, we are thrilled with the results, as we now have a platform that we can use to test drugs on a ‘personalised medicine basis. 

“Having developed and validated the model is the first crucial step, and in our ongoing collaborative work we will be working with others to better understand how the bone marrow works in healthy people, and what goes wrong when they have blood diseases.” 

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