Hope for bespoke cancer treatment after lab grows bone marrow cells

Destruction of the bone marrow, where all our blood cells are formed, is a perpetual hazard of chemotherapy. That’s why your white blood cells are constantly checked while you’re on it.

When their levels fall too far it means your bone marrow is being hammered and you’re vulnerable.

Good news then that scientists at the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham have made the first bone marrow “organoids” in a lab dish and they include all the key components of human bone marrow.

This huge advance means many anti-cancer drugs can be screened at the same time, as well as testing personalised treatments for individual cancer patients.

Human stem cells are grown in a specially designed 3D “scaffold” to generate the key cell types that exist in human bone marrow.

Amazingly, these new organoids can also keep patients’ cancer cells alive in the lab, something that was very ­difficult before. This means doctors may now be able to test bespoke ­treatments for specific patients on their own cancer cells, and find ­treatments most likely to treat the cancer.

Dr Abdullah Khan of Birmingham University 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.”

Blood cancers are the most common childhood cancers, and among the 10 most common adult cancers, in whom they’re largely incurable. Senior study author Professor Bethan Psaila of Oxford University said: “To properly understand how and why blood cancers develop, we need to use experimental systems that closely resemble how human bone marrow works, which we haven’t 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.

“We now have a platform that we can use to test drugs on a personalised medicine basis.”

Prof Psaila added: “We hope that this new technique will help accelerate the discovery and testing of new blood cancer treatments, getting improved drugs for our patients to clinical trials faster.”