Groundbreaking Culturing Technique Keeps Cells Alive in the Lab Indefinitely

March 1, 2012

In a lab at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, a donated sliver of a patient’s lung tumor was grown into numerous small tumors in a laboratory and then they were systemically exposed to various cancer drugs to see which agents offered the most potent killing potential. The best one was then used to treat the patient.

This advance was possible because a team of 13 Georgetown researchers, with help from several scientists at the National Cancer Institute, have figured out how to keep both normal and cancer cells alive in the laboratory—an innovation that previously had not been possible.

Breakthrough in medical research

Normal cells usually die in the lab after dividing only a few times, and many common cancers will not grow, unaltered, outside of the body, says Richard Schlegel, MD, PhD, chairman of the department of pathology at Georgetown Lombardi.

But now the new technique, described recently in the American Journal of Pathology, can keep these cells alive indefinitely. This breakthrough could not only usher in a new era of personalized cancer medicine, it has potential application in regenerative medicine, as well as in decoding the molecular differences between a patient’s normal and tumor cells, says Schlegel.

“Today, pathologists don’t work with living tissue. They make a diagnosis from biopsies that are either frozen or fixed and embedded in wax,” he says. “In the future, pathologists will be able to establish live cultures of normal and cancerous cells from patients, and use this to diagnose tumors and screen treatments. That has fantastic potential.”

“We tried breast cells and they grew well. We tried prostate cells and their growth was great too, which is amazing because it is normally impossible to grow these cells in the lab,” Schlegel says. “We found the same thing with lung and colon cells that have always been difficult to grow.”

The ability to grow true cancer cells may revolutionize basic science as well, Schlegel says, because many of the cancer cell lines used for basic research in labs worldwide have accumulated genetic changes that don’t resemble the original primary tumors.

The ability to immortalize cancer cells will also make biobanking—storing tumors for both research and to improve individual treatment—both viable and relevant, Schlegel says.