SCIENTISTS at a Scottish university are planning to use 3D printouts of brain tumour cells to help them better understand the biology of malignant growths that kill around 5,000 people every year in the UK.

The pioneering work will be carried out by Dr Nicholas Leslie, a tumour biologist at Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering, along with 3D printing expert Dr Will Shu. They will receive a grant of £67,000 from the Brain Tumour Charity.

Researchers have already managed to develop several types of “brain tumour in a laboratory” to study them and test drugs to beat them. The work has included taking brain tumour stem cells from patients.

However, when the cells are grown in the lab or on a plastic dish under a liquid medium, they behave very differently from the way they do in a tumour.

A cell’s behaviour depends on its environment and it is not possible to recreate tumour-like surroundings in the lab.

The Heriot-Watt team will now print in three dimensions brain tumour stem and other types of cells isolated from patients’ tumours using a novel technique they have developed.

They will develop tumour-like constructs with a dense mixture of matrix proteins and neighbouring cells that will continue to grow rapidly – mimicking the behaviour of the growth in real life.

The scientists believe this should give results that are much closer to human tumours and should reduce the current dependence on animal testing.

Leslie said: “We have developed a novel 3D printing technique to print brain tumour cells for the first time, cells that continue to grow rapidly, more closely mimicking the growth of these aggressive tumours in real life.

“Our goal is that this should provide a new way of testing drugs to treat brain tumours, leading to new treatments and speeding up the process by which new drugs become available to patients.”

The research will focus almost exclusively on malignant tumours, specifically glioblastoma, a group of tumours that grow from a type of brain cell called a glial cell.

This is the most common primary brain tumour in adults and the most aggressive.

It will bring together cancer biologists, engineers and clinicians to apply the 3D bio-printing technology to provide more realistic models for drug testing and research into glioma biology.

Shu said the interdisciplinary project should allow experiments to be conducted which have been impossible in the past. This could lead to the successful development of new treatments, development that has until now relied on “preclinical animal models that bear a poor relationship with human brain tumour pathology”.

He added: “The prognosis for newly diagnosed brain tumour patients is currently very poor and improvements have been very limited, in large part due to the failure in clinical trials of many new drugs.

“We hope our research will help develop a model that closely matches ... the response of individuals’ brain tumours to drugs, allowing more effective treatment to be carried out for patients.”

The team already has extensive experience of 3D culture models of live cells and has developed novel 3D printing approaches, including the first bio printing of stem cells.

More than 10,600 people every year are diagnosed with a brain tumour, according to the Brain Tumour Charity, and of these around 5,000 die.

It added that less than two per cent of cancer research funding is spent on brain tumours.