According to the American Cancer Society, a woman’s risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about one in 78. The majority of ovarian cancer patients are diagnosed with metastatic disease that spreads to other parts of the body and have a low five-year survival rate.

McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Ioannis Zervantonakis, PhD, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, received an award from the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation to develop microfluidic models of metastatic microenvironments in ovarian cancer and study mechanisms of cancer cell survival in these microenvironments.

The tumor microenvironment is the collection of cells, molecules, and blood vessels that surround tumor cells. Tumor growth, metastasis, and response to therapy is governed by a complex interaction network between tumor cells and those components.

“We hypothesize that during the early steps of metastasis formation, ovarian cancer cells recruit macrophages that in turn disrupt mesothelial barrier function to support adhesion and invasion,” said Dr. Zervantonakis, who runs the Tumor Microenvironment Engineering Laboratory in the Swanson School of Engineering.

In this project, they will use microfluidic technology, which allows researchers to create precise and controlled environments that can mimic human systems. Dr. Zervantonakis will develop a novel microfluidic device that will recreate a dynamic tumor-macrophage-mesothelial 3D metastatic microenvironment.

The research team will profile these metastatic microenvironments in vivo and evaluate the predictive capacity of the microfluidic device. They will also analyze ovarian cancer signaling in hopes of identifying targets that can be combined with current therapies to eliminate disease more effectively.

“Understanding cell behavior in native tumor microenvironments and developing new strategies to deliver therapeutics directly to tumor cells are critical in improving and extending patients’ lives,” said Dr. Zervantonakis.

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University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering News Release