Using Mice as Individualized Test Labs for Cancer Patients

In the search for improved ways to treat cancer, one company is using mice to serve as personal test labs for individual patients. Champions Oncology takes a sample from a patient's tumor and grafts it onto a a mouse with a weakened immune system so that the the tumor and its reaction to treatments can first be studied in the mouse. The practice is called patient-derived tumor xenografts, or PDTX, and Champions is one of 15 companies worldwide offering the service, according to a report from NBC News. This spring, Champions's president, Dr. Ronnie Morris, told NBC that the company has implanted tumor samples from 450 patients since 2007 and is currently working with about 250 patients a year.

Part of a larger tend

The mice who stand in for patients are often referred to as avatars, since they represent an individual cancer patient. The use of these avatars in the treatment of cancer is part of a larger trend to conduct experiments on tumors outside the human body, and Technology Review's coverage of the mouse avatars points to research such as fruit flies that share the same a patient's gene mutations as one more example. The article also points to another technology, still in development, that seeks to capture floating tumor cells from a person's bloodstream, with the goal of growing and testing them in culture dishes (learn more here0. One step further is the plan that some researchers have to grow mini-organs that have an immune system identical to a patient's (see more about this research here).

Technology not without its shortcomings

Looking at Champion's work with mice, Technology Review's report cautions that while the research is promising, it has real limitations. Often grafts don't work, with about 30% of cases resulting in an unsuccessful graft. The greatest barrier, however, is that tumors grow at about the same speed in a mouse as in a person. The result is that patients who are in need of immediate treatment often don't have the time to wait for the mouse's tumor to develop to the point where treatments can be tested. For more on this technology, see the article in Technology Review, the report from NBC, and the Champion's own website.

What do you think of using mice as cancer avatars?