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Samira Azarin: Building a Cancer Cell Collector

Written by Greg Breining

Much of Samira Azarin’s research falls within the realm of tissue engineering—using cells to build tissues in the laboratory, and she is focusing on several research projects.

Azarin, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, directs adult-derived stem cells to “manufacture” the endothelium (blood vessel) barrier that separates much of the body’s blood chemistry from delicate brain tissues. This engineered tissue could be used in research and drug testing, potentially reducing the need for animal studies. “If you are trying to figure out if a drug crosses the human blood-brain barrier, you can potentially screen that on these cells versus having to use mouse models,” Azarin said.

In a similar endeavor, Azarin stimulates adult-derived stem cells to become heart muscle cells. Unlike many cells in the body, which multiply rapidly to heal an injury, heart cells barely regenerate. That’s why muscle damage from a heart attack is considered permanent. Azarin wants to use her manufactured heart cells to model the behavior of natural human heart cells. “Is there a way we can turn them back on again to repair heart tissue?” she asks.

In a third project Azarin turns regenerative medicine on its head, implanting a polymer disc under the skin of mice with breast cancer to stimulate a mild immune reaction and create not healthy tissues—the goal of most regenerative medicine—but a tissue that mimics the environments cancer cells encounter once they leave the tumor and spread to metastatic sites in other organs.

Since the mouse’s breast tumor has co-opted the immune system to send immune cells (which actually protect the cancer) to various sites in the body to prepare them to receive more cancer cells, the immune cells also end up in the tiny disc. “Those immune cells secrete chemical signals that can cause migration of tumor cells to the site. They also secrete factors that can ready the environment—preparing the soil, as we call it, for the cancer cells,” Azarin said.

“This really ties into our vision of regenerative medicine. We thought we were going to have to put a lot of stuff on this scaffold to bring in cancer cells—all these bells and whistles. And it turns out when we put the device in, even just the simplest device in, the body does a lot of the work for us,” Azarin said.

But why create a precancerous environment in a body, in rodents or in humans?

By creating a magnet for circulating cancer cells, Azarin has created an early-warning system for cancer recurrence. After undergoing breast cancer treatment, a patient could have such a disc implanted. “You could have this device regularly scanned and look for the presence of tumor cells,” Azarin said. In addition, by preventing a portion of the cancer cells from going to other places, like the lung or the brain, these implants can act as a therapeutic “sponge” to soak up harmful cancer cells.

Azarin is also investigating whether the discs can be used to treat prostate, melanoma, ovarian cancer, and pancreatic malignancies. “There’s certainly great potential to have an impact across many types of cancer,” Azarin said.