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Miniature bones as a research model for cancer

Photo of Paul Bourgine
Paul Bourgine, researcher and Wallenberg Fellow in Molecular Medicine, has been awarded an ERC Proof of Concept, consisting of EUR 150,000. Photo: Kennet Ruona.

By using cells isolated from cancer patients and mixing them with a new technology called “OssiGel”, it is possible to engineer human mini-bones. These miniaturized organs consist of mature bone and marrow tissue and can be used as model to study the disease mechanisms behind cancers that arise in bone marrow or spread to the bones, and offer the personalized testing of new drugs.

Paul Bourgine is a research team leader and associate senior lecturer in Molecular Skeletal Biology at the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine, Lund University. He received an ERC Starting Grant in 2020 and has now been awarded an ERC Proof of Concept, consisting of EUR 150,000 for the innovation and research project “Development of patient “Ossicle” for the personalized modelling of bone-developing cancers and therapeutic testing.”
Our bones consist in a privilege site for cancer development. As such, blood diseases (leukaemia) starts in the bone marrow andmany types of solid cancer, such as prostate or breast cancer, can also spread to the bones at a later stage. Treating cancer is complex, partly because of our limited understanding of the disease mechanisms but also because of the important cancer diversity, leading to huge variability in response to therapies from patient to patient. It is thus essential to develop advanced cancer models, capable of reflecting each patient condition.
“We have developed a technology that allows us to form miniaturized human bones, offering a new model for studying leukemia that emerge in the bone marrow or solid tumors that later spread to the bones upon metastasis. Just like our own bones, these mini-bones contain bone marrow and have a similar structure and function. Importantly, they are composed of the patient own cells, thus mimicking the patient disease condition. The objective is to exploit them to test which therapy or drug is most effective,” says Paul Bourgine, researcher at the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine, Lund University.
These human mini-bones are called “ossicles”, a term that literally means “little bones”. To engineer these bones, researchers take cells from a patient and mix them with a special biological gel:
“OssiGel is a biological substance produced in our laboratory that allows bones to form when human cells are exposed to it. We hope our human ossicle model can be used as a preclinical platform for drug testing, towards the development of personalised treatment against cancer,” concludes Paul Bourgine.

Link to original article published by Åsa Hansdotter 1 June 2022

Facts: Different types of funding from the European Research Council , ERC

The ERC Proof of Concept is aimed at researchers who have already received funding from the ERC, and who want to explore the innovation potential of their ERC-funded project. Grant size: up to EUR 150,000 for a period of up to 18 months.

The ERC Starting Grant is for early-career researchers (2-7 years after completing their PhD) who are ready to start independent research. Grant size: up to EUR 2 million for a period of maximum 5 years.

The ERC Consolidator Grant is targeted at those who have recently started a research team and want to strengthen their role as a team leader (7-12 years after completing their PhD). Grant size: up to EUR 2.75 million for a period of maximum 5 years.

The ERC Advanced Grant is aimed at already established world-class researchers with significant research achievements within the last 10 years. Grant size: up to EUR 3.5 million for a period of maximum 5 years.

The ERC Synergy Grant is designed for small groups of very prominent researchers who wish to collaborate on a joint research project. Grant size: up to EUR 15 million for a period of maximum 6 years.