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Development of cell-laden photopolymerisable materials for the development of physiologically-relevant, three-dimensional microvascular systems to reproduce solid tumours

This project involving Dr Roger Domingo-Roca, Dr Joseph Jackson, Dr Helen Mulvana, and PhD student Lara Diaz Garcia at the University of Strathclyde looks to use multi-material 3D printing to develop new platforms to investigate the physics and biology of microvascular networks to help reduce the need to use of animals in the investigation of drug delivery and disease treatment, such as the treatment of cancer.


Cancer is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide accounting for about 10 million deaths in 2020. There are several ways of treating cancer, the most common ones being surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, independently or as adjuvants (supporting the primary treatment e.g., surgery). These treatments aim to damage cancerous cells and prevent them from growing and multiplying. While effective, these treatments do not selectively attack cancerous tissue but generally damage both healthy and malignant cells, leading to significant, severe, and undesirable side effects that patients must endure. This has led researchers to investigate alternative, less aggressive ways of treating cancer without compromising treatment effectiveness.


One of these alternative treatments is the use of ultrasound-driven microbubbles (MBs) to target drug delivery. MBs are injected to the bloodstream in conjunction with therapeutic agents to circulate systemically and are then locally stimulated by applying ultrasonic fields to deliver the drug to the tumour. This technology shows great potential to deliver drugs locally and reduce toxic side effects of the drugs on other cells, but there is a lack of understanding of how physical and biological parameters affect drug transport and delivery. There is also a need to better understand how they can be safely eliminated from the body and identify whether there are any issues with inefficient drug transport or delivery in practice. These combined issues are delaying the development of effective clinical treatments that use MBs for drug delivery.


In light of all the potential benefits that this MB technology will provide to cancer treatment, scientists are employing animal models to speed up their development, often mice. This approach raises a set of ethical and research issues that must be assessed: (i) the severity of the experimental procedures on the animals, (ii) working with uncontrollable environments, (iii) the limitations to reproduce physiologically relevant conditions that, at the same time, reproduce tissue-mimicking properties. These factors, together, hinder progress in this area of biomedical research.


This innovative project is based on the researcher’s belief that recent advances in 3D-printing technology and materials science will lead to the development of a platform that enables detailed study, testing, and analysis of novel cancer treatments in 3D-printed, physiologically relevant in-vitro systems. The team has already demonstrated the potential of 3D printing to develop tissue-mimicking and functional materials that can be used to produce cost-effective, physiologically relevant models. The next stage is to develop these models, with the aim of replicating microvascular features where conditions within the body such as the effect of fluid flow or blood vessel diameter can be replicated.


The FRAME grant will help address the next key challenge in the project, which is the development of cell-compatible photosensitive materials to 3D-print microvascular-mimicking in-vivo environments which may be used to study biomedical and bioengineering problems such as drug delivery and uptake and ultimately to investigate the effect of different biological and physical parameters on the effectiveness of ultrasound driven treatments such as MBs.

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