Researchers in the United Kingdom are developing a gel that will speed breast cancer research in the right direction, by curtailing the use of animal models.

The gel, which was originally created for stem cell research, will mimic breast tissue and contain the sugars and proteins that make this kind of tissue unique. Breasts contain a complicated matrix of cells that make them difficult to study, especially in animal models.

Right now, the most common method of studying breast cancer is to provoke cancer in rodents, but this presents its own problems, as humans and mice are not identical, creating false starts when a treatment works on mice and not humans. A rodent may also develop any number of his or her own complications during the research. However, nonanimal models have been very limited, as well. 

"Currently nonanimal tumour models poorly represent the complex environment experienced by cancer cells," explains Dr. Cathy Merry, in a press release. "But the approach planned with this gel has the potential to replicate the cancer environment seen in humans." Merry will be working on making the new gel, which will mitigate some of these problems.

Recent science indicates that breast cancer in particular is influenced by the matrix of proteins and sugars that surround breast cells. In fact, the proteins and sugars look different in samples of breast tissue that contain cancer, versus those that don't—a hint that these things need to be watched more closely. So, while these proteins and sugars haven't been the focus of previous research, the gel will bring them into the spotlight. Doctors can then control the environment that they grow cancer cells in, including the density of the fake breast tissue, eliminating many of the variables in mouse and rat models.

Another benefit of reducing reliance on animal models is that animal lives are saved.

"Thankfully these experiments are now possible without animal models, thus saving animals and expense," said Professor Tony Howell, an expert in breast cancer development from the University of Manchester.

Animal rights group PETA also cheers the development. 

"PETA welcomes the wealth of advanced, nonanimal research methodologies that are bringing a brighter future for animals and human health," PETA UK's Jennifer White told Tech Times. She called the gel, "the latest development in what is a flood of state-of-the-art uses of technology that moves us away from crude animal tests."

Funding for the research comes from the UK's National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), which awarded the group 417,000 pounds, the equivalent of $645,349 U.S. NC3RS focuses "on areas where animal use or suffering is high, where there are significant questions about the utility of [animal] models, or where emerging technologies present an opportunity to advance the 3 Rs." Those Rs are replacement, reduction and refinement of animal testing.

The research team hopes that the gel they create will also inspire the development of hydrogels that can be used to research other types of tumor-based cancers.

Photo: Kim Carpenter | Flickr

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