New Israeli ‘artificial cancer’ nano-chip helps test new treatments

Tiny silicone chip sits in a petri dish simulating diseased cells, allowing scientists to check how well immunotherapies fare against illness

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A lymphocyte on the new Ben Gurion University chip invented for cancer research (Esti Toledo and Dr. Guillaume Le Saux)
A lymphocyte on the new Ben Gurion University chip invented for cancer research (Esti Toledo and Dr. Guillaume Le Saux)

A new Israeli nano-chip, acting as an “artificial cancer” for lab tests, allows scientists to judge how well new immunotherapy treatments will work to combat the real disease.

Around the world, the race is on to develop new immunotherapies, but a major challenge is predicting their effectiveness during development. Prof. Mark Schvartzman’s lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev decided to deploy nanotechnology and build the world’s first chip that mimics the arrangement of different molecules in a cancer cell.

Scientists can let new immunotherapy treatments loose on the chip, and get a detailed picture of how well they will tackle cancer. The chip is specifically intended for assessing new immunotherapy treatments consisting of lymphocytes — white blood cells that are key to immune responses.

“Our new chip is like an artificial cancer, that can be put in a petri dish with lymphocytes that have been genetically engineered and comprise an immunotherapy treatment,” Schvartzman told The Times of Israel. “We look at it under a microscope, and see whether the treatment works when faced with ‘cancer,’ and if so how well it works.”

Illustrative image: A technician works in the cell processing facility at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, developing immunotherapy treatments. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

He added: “It’s like a test kit which puts specific lymphocytes in a cancer environment and monitors them.”

In explaining the chip’s advantages over real cancer cells, Schvartzman said treatments require numerous tests, and the chip is always constant whereas cells drawn from actual cancer patients vary. He added that the new tech also has benefits in freeing patients from the invasive process of having cells removed, and prevents the need for the complicated procedure of gathering them.

Schvartzman’s breakthrough was reported in a peer-reviewed article just published in the journal Science Advances. Schvartzman said that it was achieved by repurposing chip-making techniques developed for the high-tech scene for health.

Prof. Mark Schvartzman (Dani Machlis/Ben Gurion University)

“The field of nanotechnology took off about 20 years ago, primarily stemming from a need to reduce the size of components on computer processing chips,” he said. “Nowadays, the field offers unique tools that serve scientists from many different fields. These tools allow us to create, view and control objects just 10 nanometers or less in size.”

That opens up possibilities in health because it is the size-scale of a single biomolecule in the body, he said.

Schvartzman’s co-author, Prof. Angel Porgador, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, said he believes that the chip is “of far-reaching significance in developing immunotherapy treatments against cancer.”

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