$10.8M initiative unites engineering and health researchers to improve cancer treatments

David W. Hahn and Joann Sweasy

David W. Hahn, the Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering, and Joann Sweasy, the Nancy C. and Craig M. Berge Endowed Chair for the Director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

Eradicating cancer is a complex goal because of the environment in which the disease grows – the human body.

"We've cured cancer in petri dishes, and we've cured cancer in mice. We haven't cured cancer in people, because people are none of those things," said University of Arizona researcher Jennifer Barton, Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Engineering and director of the university's BIO5 Institute.

Barton is part the University of Arizona Cancer Engineering Initiative, which was awarded $10.8 million over three years through the state of Arizona's New Economy Initiative, beginning fiscal year 2022-2023.

The effort began with David W. Hahn, the Craig M. Berge Dean of the College of Engineering, and Joann Sweasy, the Nancy C. and Craig M. Berge Endowed Chair for the Director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center. They formed a working group around a shared vision: Merge engineering and cancer research to better account for the realities of how and where cancers grow to improve diagnosis, prevention and precision treatments for cancer.

The work involves identifying how cancer cells in diverse environments mimicking human tissues respond to imaging methods, drugs, blood flow conditions and mechanical stresses. 3D printing is key to formulating tissue models that allow for the study of cancer initiation, growth, metastasis and response to therapies.

"Eradicating cancer is one of the biggest challenges in medicine," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, who is also a medical doctor. "Thanks to the support of Arizona's New Economy Initiative, this exciting collaboration leverages University of Arizona health and engineering expertise with innovative tools that will hopefully yield new answers and a better understanding of cancer and its treatment."

Cancer engineering: 'Pushing frontiers'

Many of the standard cancer treatments currently in use are not tailored for specific patients and sometimes not for the exact type of cancer present.

"These treatments often do a good job of killing select populations of cancer cells sensitive to the treatment," said Arthur Gmitro, professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and a member of the initiative's working group. "But, often, there are remaining cancer cells that have evolved to be less sensitive to that kind of treatment."

With 3D-printed growth environments, referred to as biomimetic because they mimic human tissue, engineers can help develop precision treatments. Researchers can place cancer cells from a patient into these environments to test the efficacy of treatments specific to those cells, thereby developing precision treatment strategies, Gmitro said.

Engineers can also create 3D models of the cancers themselves, accelerating understanding of diagnostic and prevention methods. Knowledge acquisition in any one area feeds other areas.

"You have cancer biology, detection and treatment, and those three things can't be approached separately," Barton said. "In order to detect something, you have to know what the signal is. And then you have to understand the cancer biology and the signals it makes to treat it effectively. You need all of them engaged in a cancer engineering program."

Advances in polymer development and 3D printing technology over the last decade have made cancer research collaboration a promising engineering focus area. Additionally, said Hahn, the mechanics of tumors and their environments fall into the realm of engineering science. However, cancer engineering is a novel area of study with much untapped potential.

"We're pushing the frontiers of what's going on. There are some pockets of activity around the country, but this is new," Hahn said.

Collaborating against cancer

The UArizona Cancer Center recently named cancer engineering one of its top three themes as part of the strategic planning process when renewing its designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center from the National Cancer Institute.

The effort is uniquely aligned with the New Economy Initiative, which focuses on specific opportunities, said Hahn.

"If we take this to the heights of success, companies will form and license technology from the University of Arizona," he said. "They will start to grow until we have a center of gravity in Arizona, with tens of thousands of jobs and making a difference in lives. That is the dream of the New Economy Initiative and what we work toward every day."

The Cancer Center is one of 16 centers in UArizona Health Sciences, which advocated for funding to solidify the collaboration.

"There were an estimated 40,000 new cases of cancer in Arizona in 2022 alone. We are grateful to receive New Economy Initiative funding to intensify our efforts to improve the health of Arizona's residents," said University of Arizona Health Sciences Senior Vice President Dr. Michael D. Dake. "Partnerships such as the one between the Cancer Center and the College of Engineering are vital to investigating and solving our most critical health care problems, including cancer."

The initiative will go beyond engineering and health sciences, requiring expertise in data analysis, health law, regulatory affairs, physician practices and patient understanding, said Barton.

"It's such a complex problem that we have to bring people together — and frankly, that's why the University of Arizona is such a great place to do this," she said. "We have expertise in biomechanics, tissue engineering and imaging, and we have 3D cell printers and a drug discovery group. Our centers are used to working with each other."

Barton and her colleagues from the UArizona Cancer Center and the College of Engineering plan to hire three to five additional researchers to focus on the initiative.

The project also will involve students at all levels and from multiple disciplines in cancer research. The ongoing investigation is likely to attract medical students who contribute to innovative thinking, Sweasy said.

"They're attracted to collaborative and team science ventures, which is important because when you get a lot of smart people in a room, especially students, a project really takes off and goes somewhere," she said.