New technique reveals extracellular matrix structure of organs and tumors

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"We have developed a technique to obtain intact organ scaffolds and to image them using microscopes. We are the first to image the structures of primary and metastatic tumors as well as healthy organs in this way", says Prof Erler.

A world of details revealed?Cells which are organized together to form tissues rely on the extracellular matrix as a foundation for attachment, to arrange themselves properly and to sense how to behave when their environment changes. Sometimes this organization goes wrong and cells grow into tumors. To destroy a tumor, it is essential to know both its structure and the foundation upon which it is built.

This new method was pioneered by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Alejandro Mayorca-Guiliani, in Prof Erler's team, who says, "We have isolated the structure that keeps tissues in place and organizes the cells inside them. We did this by using existing blood vessels to deliver cell-removing compounds directly to a specific tissue to remove all cells within an organ, while leaving behind an intact scaffold that we could analyze biochemically and microscopically, providing us with the first view of the structure of tumors."

Imaging expert and co-author Chris Madsen (now at Lund University, Sweden) says "When you remove the cells, the clarity of what you can see through the microscope is much better - you can see the fibers of the matrix more clearly and you can look much deeper into the tissue."

Matrix biology expert and co-author Thomas Cox (now based at the Garvan Institute, Sydney) says "Because we're removing the cells completely, we can use mass spectrometry to identify and study the components of the matrix - in normal tissue and in tumors - in great detail".

Understanding cancer progression

This research is an advance in the fields of both cancer research and bioengineering: by using the decellularized organs we can learn much more about how tumors and normal organs are built, and what their differences are. This new technique might even have an impact on organ regeneration and tissue engineering in the future.

"We are now re-introducing cells into our extracellular matrix scaffolds, bringing them back to life, to study how tumors form and how cancer progresses. This is extremely exciting and offers a unique opportunity to study how cells behave in their native environment," explains Prof Erler.​

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