_TECHNOLOGY biofabrication

_3-D Printed Tumors

An engineering breakthrough will allow cancer researchers to create living tumors with a 3-D printer.

_Wei Sun

Sun is the Albert Soffa chair professor in the College of Engineering and the director of Drexel’s research center at the Shanghai Advanced Research Institute.

A Drexel researcher has devised a method for 3-D printing tumors that could take cancer research out of the petri dish.


After eight days, the mixture of cervical cancer cells and hydrogel grew into living spheroid tumors — shown in dye.

Using a mixture of cervical cancer cells and a hydrogel substance, Wei Sun can print out a tumor model that provides a more accurate way to study how tumors behave and respond to treatment. Sun is the Albert Soffa chair professor in the College of Engineering.

While researchers have been able to make cell models and tissues using rapid prototyping methods for some time, Sun’s lab is the first to produce a living tumor model using 3-D printing. The procedure was described in Biofabrication in 2014.

For cancer researchers, 2-D samples have inherent limits. Tumors in the body have a much different surface area, shape and cellular composition than samples grown in a lab, thus data from tests of cancer treatments will differ from the reaction of an actual tumor to the drugs. But until now, in vitro cell cultures were their best option.

“Three-D tumor models can represent true tumor 3-D pathological organizations,” Sun says.

Sun tested his tumor model against a two-dimensional culture sample using a common anti-cancer drug.

For the undertaking, Sun’s team used a multi-nozzle printer of his own design to extrude a gelatinous mixture of hydrogels and living cervical cancer cells. Ninety percent of the cancer cells survived the process and within eight days had grown into spheroid-shaped tumors.

Demonstration of how a 3-D printer created the framework for a living tumor.

The 3-D printed tumors showed more resistance to chemical treatment than the same cancer cells from a petri dish — an illustration of the disparity between test results and success rates of cancer treatments.