Nanofibers Help Scientists Study Brain Cancer In The Lab

July 30, 2010

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Cancer and engineering scientists at The Ohio State University are collaborating to create molecule-sized nanofibers to mimic the structure of white matter in the brain. By combining nanotechnology with a medically-approved polymer, researchers are able to study the invasive behavior of tumor cells. The nanofibers are used to produce a more natural, three-dimensional environment for studying cancer cells outside the brain, and for testing potential drugs to treat this deadly disease.

Malignant brain tumor cells often migrate into surrounding healthy brain tissue, making these tumors extremely difficult or impossible to cure even after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. These highly migratory cells follow fibrous tracks that are part of the brain’s neural topography. Migratory cells resist clinical treatments and often produce a fatal tumor recurrence.

Mariano Viapiano, a researcher at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James) is collaborating with John Lannutti, professor of materials science and engineering in Ohio State’s College of Engineering, and others, to develop biologically compatible nanofibers that mimic the neural topography used by migratory tumor cells.

“We were trying to improve our understanding of how cancer invades in the brain and other organs,” says Viapiano, a member of the Center for Molecular Neurobiology and the Molecular Biology and Cancer Genetics Research Program at OSUCCC-James. “We have found the behavior of tumor cells is much more similar to the behavior in the real tumor when we grow them on these nanofibers instead of conventional, rigid plastic petri dishes.”

The nanofibers are so small that their general structure can only be observed in a scanning electron microscope. For perspective, it would take nearly 100 nanofibers side-by-side to equal the width of one human hair.

For generations, scientists have used petri dishes to grow living cells in the laboratory. But the cancer cells they observed and treated in this two-dimensional environment behaved much differently than they did in three-dimensional human tissue.

In contrast, nanofibers form spider web-like three-dimensional cell cultures in which cancer cells move and climb much as they do in human tissue.

“We want to analyze cells behaving in a manner more representative to how they behave in patients,” said Viapiano, who is an assistant professor of neurological surgery in the College of Medicine. “This is a significant improvement because it is giving us a new environment to culture the cells.”

The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute ( is one of only 40 Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the United States designated by the National Cancer Institute. Ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top cancer hospitals in the nation, The James is the 180-bed adult patient-care component of the cancer program at The Ohio State University. The OSUCCC-James is one of only seven funded programs in the country approved by the NCI to conduct both Phase I and Phase II clinical trials.

# # #

Eileen Scahill
Medical Center Public Affairs and Media Relations

Contact Media Staff

Amanda Harper

Director of Media Relations

614-685-5420 (direct)

614-293-3737 (main)

Media staff are available by calling 614-293-3737 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.


If after hours, please call 614-293-8000 (ask the operator to page the hospital administrative manager).

Latest News

Drug Harnesses Immune System To Combat Most Common Form of Lung Cancer

Recently approved immunotherapy drugs are offering patients – and their oncologists – new hope for extending survival of people with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Investigational Drug May Prevent Life-Threatening Muscle Loss in Advanced Cancers

New data describes how an experimental drug can stop life-threatening muscle wasting (cachexia) associated with advanced cancers and restore muscle health. The experimental agent, known as AR-42 while in...

One Day to Help Create More Healthy — And Cancer-Free — Tomorrows

Through the generous support of Don and Angie Ward, all donations made to Ohio State's cancer program today (Nov. 24) through Giving Tuesday (Dec. 1), will be matched, 100 percent, up to $50,000.