“The Harper Cancer Research Institute is distinctive in a number of ways when it comes to conducting its research collaborations,” said M. Sharon Stack, Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of the HCRI and Kleiderer-Pezold Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “One is that we are proud to have a number of engineers, like Niebur, working with scientists on cancer research. Another is that we greatly benefit from our partnership with Memorial Hospital, which is recognized nationally for providing a high level of cancer care, trauma care, and surgical care, as well as being a leader in innovation."
"Notre Dame’s collaboration with Memorial Hospital is imperative to not only this study by Littlepage and Niebur, but also to several other research efforts at the institute and beyond." — M. Sharon Stack, director of the Harper Cancer Research Institute
As local patients have their routine hip replacement surgeries, they can opt to anonymously donate their removed bone. After the surgery, the tissue is then placed in a sterile container and transported directly to the Tissue Mechanics Laboratory. Once delivered to the lab, the bone is carefully prepared so that it can be used to study its interaction with breast cancer cells.
Glen Niebur advises graduate student Kimberly Curtis.
During the experiments, the bone tissue is kept alive by feeding it with a cell culture medium, which contains glucose and essential vitamins and nutrients. Theoretically, if no infection occurs, the bone cultures could grow and remain alive indefinitely. Niebur developed this bone culture technique with collaborators at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) in the National University of Ireland, Galway, and his laboratory is the first to adapt it to study cancer metastasis.
The research team’s ability to maintain the bone in culture media with cancer cells is important for the success of this study. To explain, Niebur said, “Although there are other models that are applied every day by scientists for cancer research, we know they are less representative of human tissue and not nearly as similar to human genetics as researchers would like them to be. "
"By working with human bone, we have an opportunity to more accurately account for biological diversity and know our work is likely more applicable to breast cancer metastasis patients." — Glen Niebur, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering
One of the goals of the study is to decipher what cell type in bone or bone marrow attracts the breast cancer cells. Their first step is to conduct experiments to determine what exactly the cancer cells are attracted to. For this, the research team took human bone with marrow and human bone without marrow and compared how quickly breast cancer cells moved to either option. Although still early on in the study, so far they have observed that the breast cancer cells move significantly faster towards the bone with marrow. This potentially means that a cell type in the marrow, rather than the bone itself, could be more attractive to the cancer cells.