Breast cancer is a leading cause of mortality in the Western world. It is well established that the spread of breast cancer, first locally and later distally, is a major factor in patient prognosis. Experimental systems of breast cancer rely on cell lines usually derived from primary tumours or pleural effusions. Two major obstacles hinder this research: (i) some known sub-types of breast cancers (notably poor prognosis luminal B tumours) are not represented within current line collections; (ii) the influence of the tumour microenvironment is not usually taken into account.
We demonstrate a technique to culture primary breast cancer specimens of all sub-types. This is achieved by using three-dimensional (3D) culture system in which small pieces of tumour are embedded in soft rat collagen I cushions. Within 2-3 weeks, the tumour cells spread into the collagen and form various structures similar to those observed in human tumours1. Viable adipocytes, epithelial cells and fibroblasts within the original core were evident on histology. Malignant epithelial cells with squamoid morphology were demonstrated invading into the surrounding collagen. Nuclear pleomorphism was evident within these cells, along with mitotic figures and apoptotic bodies.
We have employed Optical Projection Tomography (OPT), a 3D imaging technology, in order to quantify the extent of tumour spread in culture. We have used OPT to measure the bulk volume of the tumour culture, a parameter routinely measured during the neo-adjuvant treatment of breast cancer patients to assess response to drug therapy.
Here, we present an opportunity to culture human breast tumours without sub-type bias and quantify the spread of those ex vivo. This method could be used in the future to quantify drug sensitivity in original tumour. This may provide a more predictive model than currently used cell lines.