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Below are some key publications where researchers leveraged our hydrogel technology to produce more accurate and reliable data, without the need for animals and often avoiding the use of animal-derived materials too.

May 2023

Mendonca, T., Lis-Slimak, K., Matheson, A.B., Smith, M.G., Anane-Adjei, A.B., Ashworth, J.C., Cavanagh, R., Paterson, L., Dalgarno, P.A., Alexander, C. Tassieri, M., Merry, C.L.R. and Wright, A.J., 2023. OptoRheo: Simultaneous in situ micro-mechanical sensing and imaging of live 3D biological systems. Communications Biology, 6(1), p.463.


Biomechanical cues from the extracellular matrix (ECM) are essential for directing many cellular processes, from normal development and repair, to disease progression. To better understand cell-matrix interactions, we have developed a new instrument named ‘OptoRheo’ that combines light sheet fluorescence microscopy with particle tracking microrheology. OptoRheo lets us image cells in 3D as they proliferate over several days while simultaneously sensing the mechanical properties of the surrounding extracellular and pericellular matrix at a sub-cellular length scale. OptoRheo can be used in two operational modalities (with and without an optical trap) to extend the dynamic range of microrheology measurements. We corroborated this by characterising the ECM surrounding live breast cancer cells in two distinct culture systems, cell clusters in 3D hydrogels and spheroids in suspension culture. This cutting-edge instrument will transform the exploration of drug transport through complex cell culture matrices and optimise the design of the next-generation of disease models.


March 2023

Jones, S., Ashworth, J.C., Meakin, M., Collier, P., Probert, C., Ritchie, A.A., Merry, C.L.R. and Grabowska, A.M., 2023. Application of a 3D hydrogel-based model to replace use of animals for passaging patient-derived xenografts. In vitro models, pp.1-13.

This 3D in vitro cancer model for propagation of patient-derived cells, using a synthetic self-assembling peptide gel, allows the formation of a fully characterised, tailorable tumour microenvironment. Unlike many existing 3D cancer models, the peptide gel is inert, apart from molecules and motifs deliberately added or produced by cells within the model. Breast cancer PDXs were shown to be capable of expansion over four or more passages in the peptide gel. Contaminating mouse cells were found to be rapidly removed by successive passages. The resulting human cells were shown to be compatible with a range of common assays useful for assessing survival, growth and maintenance of heterogeneity. Based on these findings, the hydrogel has the potential to provide an effective and practical breast cancer model for the passage of PDXs which will have the added benefits of being relatively cheap, fully-defined and free from the use of animals or animal products. Encapsulated cells will require further validation to confirm the maintenance of cell heterogeneity, genotypes and phenotypes across passage, but with further development, including the addition of bespoke cell and matrix components of the tumour microenvironment, there is clear potential to model other cancer types.


Feb 2023

James, J.R., Curd, J., Ashworth, J.C., Abuhantash, M., Grundy, M., Seedhouse, C.H., Arkill, K.P., Wright, A.J., Merry, C.L.R. and Thompson, A., 2023. Hydrogel-based pre-clinical evaluation of repurposed FDA-approved drugs for AML. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 24(4), p.4235.


In vivo models of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are low throughput, and standard liquid culture models fail to recapitulate the mechanical and biochemical properties of the extracellular matrix-rich protective bone marrow niche that contributes to drug resistance. Candidate drug discovery in AML requires advanced synthetic platforms to improve our understanding of the impact of mechanical cues on drug sensitivity in AML. By use of a synthetic, self-assembling peptide hydrogel (SAPH) of modifiable stiffness and composition, a 3D model of the bone marrow niche to screen repurposed FDA-approved drugs has been developed and utilized. AML cell proliferation was dependent on SAPH stiffness, which was optimized to facilitate colony growth. Three candidate FDA-approved drugs were initially screened against the THP-1 cell line and mAF9 primary cells in liquid culture, and EC50 values were used to inform drug sensitivity assays in the peptide hydrogel models. Salinomycin demonstrated efficacy in both an 'early-stage' model in which treatment was added shortly after initiation of AML cell encapsulation, and an 'established' model in which time-encapsulated cells had started to form colonies. Sensitivity to Vidofludimus treatment was not observed in the hydrogel models, and Atorvastatin demonstrated increased sensitivity in the 'established' compared to the 'early-stage' model. AML patient samples were equally sensitive to Salinomycin in the 3D hydrogels and partially sensitive to Atorvastatin. Together, this confirms that AML cell sensitivity is drug- and context-specific and that advanced synthetic platforms for higher throughput are valuable tools for pre-clinical evaluation of candidate anti-AML drugs.

Jan 2020

Ashworth, J.C., Thompson, J.L., James, J.R., Slater, C.E., Pijuan-Galitó, S., Lis-Slimak, K., Holley, R.J., Meade, K.A., Thompson, A., Arkill, K.P., Tassieri, M., Wright, A.J., Farnie, G. and Merry, C.L.R, 2020. Peptide gels of fully-defined composition and mechanics for probing cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions in vitro. Matrix Biology, 85, pp.15-33.


Current materials used for in vitro 3D cell culture are often limited by their poor similarity to human tissue, batch-to-batch variability and complexity of composition and manufacture. Here, we present a “blank slate” culture environment based on a self-assembling peptide gel free from matrix motifs. The gel can be customised by incorporating matrix components selected to match the target tissue, with independent control of mechanical properties. Therefore the matrix components are restricted to those specifically added, or those synthesised by encapsulated cells. The flexible 3D culture platform provides full control over biochemical and physical properties, allowing the impact of biochemical composition and tissue mechanics to be separately evaluated in vitro. Here, we demonstrate that the peptide gels support the growth of a range of cells including human induced pluripotent stem cells and human cancer cell lines. Furthermore, we present proof-of-concept that the peptide gels can be used to build disease-relevant models. Controlling the peptide gelator concentration allows peptide gel stiffness to be matched to normal breast (<1 kPa) or breast tumour tissue (>1 kPa), with higher stiffness favouring the viability of breast cancer cells over normal breast cells. In parallel, the peptide gels may be modified with matrix components relevant to human breast, such as collagen I and hyaluronan. The choice and concentration of these additions affect the size, shape and organisation of breast epithelial cell structures formed in co-culture with fibroblasts. This system therefore provides a means of unravelling the individual influences of matrix, mechanical properties and cell-cell interactions in cancer and other diseases.

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