This chip simulates the spread of tumors


A small chip that mimics the spread of cancer cells. Jelle Sleeboom developed this during his doctoral research at Eindhoven University of Technology.

In the Netherlands, 44,770 people died of cancer in 2018. Often it is not the primary tumor that is the cause of death, but the spread of it. That is why Sleeboom wants to help with his techniques to better understand and eventually even prevent cancer metastasis. During his research Sleeboom developed small chips that are comparable to the human body for cancer cells.


When cancer cells move to other organs, this is called metastasis. Metastasis is not yet well understood by doctors. This is because studies of new treatments often focus on attacking the rapidly dividing cancer cells. More research needs to be done to prevent or treat metastasis.

Research into metastasis is difficult because it takes place on a very small scale. Tumors can spread with just a few cells. This makes them difficult to follow.

Sleeboom: “What makes the understanding of metastasis even more difficult is that cancer cells do not spread independently, but are influenced in all kinds of ways by their environment.” This environment is called the tumor microenvironment.


Sleeboom developed small chips with which the tumor microenvironment can be simulated. The devices work on the basis of microfluidics, the science of manipulating liquids.

These devices grow cancer cells in fluid channels and chambers. “This makes the cancer cells believe they are in a human,” says Sleeboom. “The big difference is that these chips provide control over the tumor microenvironment. This allows the effect of the various factors on cancer cells to be systematically investigated. ” This concept is called ‘cancer-on-a-chip’.

Affect cancer cells

There is a lot of variation in oxygen concentration in the tumor microenvironment. Sleeboom investigated the effect of oxygen turnover on cancer cells. He showed, among other things, that a certain type of breast cancer cell is attracted to lower oxygen concentrations. “This may teach us more about the behavior of cancer cells in humans,” says Sleeboom.

Further development

Sleeboom has developed a method to surround cancer cells with a membrane. When cancer cells separate from the primary tumor, they must first break through a thin membrane. This is called invasion, the first stage of metastasis. With this development, the process of metastasis can be better followed.

Sleeboom: “The techniques we have developed contribute to the further development of ‘Cancer-on-a-chip’. Hopefully this will help in the future to better understand cancer metastasis, or even prevent it. ”

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