MIT Engineers Grow Functioning Replicas of the Pancreas Out of Both Healthy and Cancerous Pancreatic Tissue

Scientists and engineers from two institutes, namely Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, collaborated and developed a new way of growing organoids that can function like real pancreatic tissue. They grew these replica tissues by using real normal pancreatic tissue or cancerous pancreatic tissue. This research will allow for the development of new treatments for pancreatic cancer.


Pancreas Image Courtesy of Blausen Medical

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Researchers used a specific gel that is similar to the extracellular environment in the pancreas and grew pancreatic organoids. Previously, many gels have been used for similar purposes but this gel has the advantage that it is completely synthetic and can be grown with the same composition every time. It is also easily prepared. This model allowed researchers to study the interactions between pancreatic cancerous cells and their environment.

According to researchers, it is not easy to reproduce these findings. Many researchers have been looking to find ways to develop environments to grow many organoids and also, have been looking for ways to control the microenvironment.

Researchers have used many commercially available cultures in the past but there are many challenges associated with these cultures, like the presence of undesirable components and lack of suitability to growing multiple types of cells.

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Developing the synthetic gel

Linda Griffith’s lab started their work on developing a synthetic gel 10 years ago. Their gel consisted of polyethylene glycol as this material did not interact with living tissues. By studying the properties of extracellular materials, they created different features in the gel that made it optimum for tissue growth. In particular, they discovered that the presence of peptide ligands was paramount for cells to adhere to the extracellular matrix and grow in it. Building on this understanding, they were able to grow various types of epithelial tissue including intestinal tissue. They also demonstrated that the supporting cells (stromal cells) and immune cells can also be grown in this microenvironment.

The focus of the current study

In the current study, Griffith and Claus Jorgensen, a group leader at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, focused on growing normal pancreatic tissues and cancerous pancreatic tissue in this culture. Previously, it had been difficult for cancerous pancreatic cells because they lose their cancerous characteristics once they are removed from the body.

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The two teams from the above-mentioned institutes collaborated and grew normal and cancerous pancreatic cells in the synthetic gel. The cells were derived from mice. According to researchers, these pancreatic organoids expressed the same integrins as that of living tissue in mice. Researchers were also able to grow other types of cells like macrophages and fibroblasts.

Additionally, researchers were also able to demonstrate that they can grow pancreatic cancerous cells from actual patients.

Future direction

They believe that these findings will help in studying various types of cancers in humans and their microenvironments. In the future, researchers plan to grow cells from patients with endometriosis, a condition in which uterine tissues grow outside the uterus and can result in pain and infertility.

Researchers have filed a patent for their synthetic gel and hopefully, in the future, it will be produced commercially.

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A microenvironment-inspired synthetic three-dimensional model for pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma organoids, NatureMaterials, Accessed 22 September 2021,



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