UW-River Falls researchers grow artificial tissue to study skin cancer

Posted November 16, 2015

A UW-River Falls research laboratory has become the first to study melanoma by growing three-dimensional artificial tissue, according to the Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center (TCIC). Melanoma is a form of skin cancer.

The research is the latest project to be launched by the TCIC. Timothy Lyden, professor of anatomy and physiology, is the director of the laboratory. He and postdoctoral researcher Mike Martin are working in a fresh field of research, Lyden said.

“It’s all new. What we’re doing has never been done before by anybody, anywhere,” Lyden said. “So essentially we’re building an entire field as we go.”

By using cell lines from mice, the TCIC is able to develop the cell cultures and transfer them onto 3-D scaffolds. From there, how the cells form tumors and how those tumors act after being formed can be studied.

“People get the wrong idea that we’re like Frankenstein up here, trying to build body parts,” Lyden said. “And that’s only a little bit true. We are trying to build small pieces of tissue, but we’re not trying to build any sort of organs or anything.”

Two forms of melanoma exist, and one spreads particularly quickly and is often deadly. With cells from the same mouse, Lyden has been able to study both forms of the cancer in a unique way.

“Being able to have those two types of cells gives us a fairly rare tool set for any kind of cancer,” Lyden said. “In most kinds of cancers, you don’t have two cell lines like that, that are exactly identical in their genetic background.”

The melanoma research is being funded through the TCIC’s annual budget. Lyden said that one vial of cells from the American Type Cell Collection costs around $400. While the research can be expensive to conduct, Lyden said that he has learned how to cut the costs significantly.

“If you do things properly, you take that vial, you grow your first flask of cells and then you expand it and make several flasks of cells,” Lyden said. “And before you do any experiments, you take those cells and you freeze your own vials down.”

Lyden said that if done right, the cells can continue being remade endlessly. UWRF’s liquid nitrogen storage facility has between $50,000 and $60,000 worth of cell lines currently stored. Lyden said that remaking the cells has allowed the laboratory to do far more than its budget alone could have funded.

At least 73,000 cases of melanoma are estimated to be diagnosed in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. Just under 10,000 people are expected to die as a result of the cancer.

The first student to express interest in participating in the research was UWRF senior Bailey Vitek. She said she is planning to work in the laboratory over the summer, after returning from a semester in Germany. Vitek said that her mother being a survivor of melanoma is part of the reason she decided to get involved with the research.

“For me, that’s like a really personal thing,” Vitek said. “It’s always better if you have personal stuff, because it makes you drive harder to what you want.”

Lyden said that the spreading of melanoma is usually what kills people. Since a person can often live with the first tumor, Lyden said that it’s possible that understanding how melanoma spreads could help change it from a fatal to a chronic condition. However, Lyden said that he doesn’t want people to think that the goal of the research is to cure all types of cancer.

“It would be wonderful if something we did led to a breakthrough that could change our understanding of cancer,” Lyden said, “but truthfully I don’t think that anybody is going to actually cure cancer.”

No end is planned for the research. Lyden said that he expects parts of the TCIC’s melanoma project to continue long after his students’ careers are over.