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Trends in Oncology

Tumor cell attacked by CAR T cells engineered to recognize specific surface antigens on the tumor cell  membrane.

Chimeric antigen receptor-mediated T cell (CAR T cell) therapies have revolutionized the treatment of hematologic malignancies and solid tumors. This therapy uses T cells, typically harvested from patients, that are engineered to express chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) specific to tumor cell antigens. CD19-targeting CAR T cell therapy was the first immunotherapy shown to effectively treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia[1], but a subset of patients relapse due to loss or poor engraftment of CAR T cells. Here we highlight advances in CAR T cell therapy to improve the quality of the immunotherapy product ex vivo for more effective responses in vivo.

Enhancing CAR T Cell Therapy: Optimizing Preparation for Superior Results

1/25/24 11:10 AM / by Champions Oncology posted in Immuno-Oncology, Ex Vivo Platforms


Chimeric antigen receptor-mediated T cell (CAR T cell) therapies have revolutionized the treatment of hematologic malignancies and solid tumors. This therapy uses T cells, typically harvested from patients, that are engineered to express chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) specific to tumor cell antigens. CD19-targeting CAR T cell therapy was the first immunotherapy shown to effectively treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia[1], but a subset of patients relapse due to loss or poor engraftment of CAR T cells. Here we highlight advances in CAR T cell therapy to improve the quality of the immunotherapy product ex vivo for more effective responses in vivo.

Culture Conditions

T cells from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) are the primary cellular product used for CAR T cell therapy, but several steps must be carried out ex vivo to ensure that enough cells are made for therapeutic efficacy. The best treatment outcomes have been linked to high levels of CAR T cell engraftment and persistence upon transfer into a patient[2]. Ex vivo culture methods have been optimized to expand T cells, and cultures using less differentiated T cells, like stem cell memory T cells or naïve-like T cells, have been linked to better persistence upon transfer[3]. Recent studies are characterizing phenotypic features of T cells that preserve “stemness” upon ex vivo culture but still allow for expansion and expression of CAR T receptors. Reduced culture time has been one of the most effective methods for improving engraftment and antitumor responses but is limited by the number of cells yielded by this minimal manipulation process[4].





The successful engraftment and persistence of CAR T cells depend greatly on where cells migrate upon transfer into patients. Preserving stem cell-like features correlates with better engraftment, especially if donor-derived cells are unavailable and autologous cell sources must be used[5]. In vivo imaging studies have been very helpful in understanding CAR T cell dynamics and anti-tumor responses. Studies in mouse models have indicated that CAR T cells can get trapped in tissues, including the lungs, which can limit access to tumor targets[6]. Analysis of CAR T cells with tumor cells also revealed extensive functional heterogeneity, including CAR-T cells that can interact with tumor cells but not exert cytotoxic effector functions. A recent first-in-human study examined the biodistribution of radioisotope-labeled CAR T cells and confirmed that these cells rapidly distribute to tumor tissue but are taken up by the liver and spleen and can persist systemically for up to two weeks[7]. As new in vivo imaging studies are carried out, these insights will inform how CAR T cell products are made and delivered and are likely to improve treatment outcomes.


Advances in ex vivo methods for CAR T cell preparation are already improving outcomes, and these methods are broadly applicable to donor-derived or autologous T cell products. In vivo imaging methods are also delineating characteristics of CAR T cells that improve tumor targeting or result in misdirected tissue homing. Future in vivo and ex vivo studies are well-poised to further advance CAR T cell applications.


Click to download your case study of preclinical evaluation of a novel CAR T cell therapy using Champions' DLBCL PDX models.


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Uncovering Advantages and Disadvantages of Ex Vivo Culture in Preclinical Cancer Research

12/28/23 10:00 AM / by Champions Oncology posted in Organoids, Solid Tumor Oncology, Ex Vivo Platforms

Blue 96 well roboter head in genetics and medical laboratory.

Ex vivo culture systems have been instrumental to preclinical oncology research because they enable researchers to study basic features of tumor cells and carry out large-scale screens of drugs or biologics. Ex vivo cultures do not fully recapitulate physiological conditions, although some advances have been made by developing three-dimensional (3D) culture methods.

Here we highlight the advantages and disadvantages of using ex vivo cultures for preclinical oncology research.

Cell culture: simple, inexpensive, but imperfect

Ex vivo cell cultures of tumors were first developed as adherent two-dimensional (2D) monolayers that were grown in culture flasks or flat dishes. This approach is useful for studying tumors' basic cell biology and carrying out drug screens and preliminary toxicology and pharmacokinetic studies[1]. 2D cultures can be developed rapidly and cultured over longer periods of time using readily available tissue culture reagents. Unfortunately, 2D culture systems are limited in their applications because they do not accurately model the tumor microenvironment, and tumor cell morphology and function change under these culture conditions. Over the last several decades, 3D cultures have advanced significantly[2]. Several different systems now exist for 3D cultures, including liquid suspension cultures passaged on non-adherent plates, cultures grown in semi-solid substrates like soft agar or Matrigel, and cells grown on scaffolds like collagen. 3D culture systems better mimic characteristics of the tumor microenvironment, including cell-cell interactions, hypoxia, and reduced sensitivity to drug treatment[3].Lab technician injecting liquid into a microtiter plate


3D cultures for drug discovery have become widely adapted over 2D models because they better predict in vivo efficacy and metabolic responses to drug treatments. A major advance in 3D tumor culture systems is the development of 3D spheroid and organoid cultures[4]. Spheroids are clusters of cells derived from tumors or other complex tissues and they cluster together through cell-cell adhesion. Organoids are more complex cell clusters derived from stem cells and can self-assemble and regenerate to form a smaller version of the original tumor or organ tissue. Tumor spheroids are widely used for drug screening and cytotoxicity assays and can be formed from dissociated tumor tissue or circulating tumor cells[5]. Tumor organoids are even more accurate reflections of tumors growing under physiological conditions and are now widely used to compare the efficacy of standard-of-care treatments versus targeted therapies in addition to their use in drug screens[6]. Spheroids and organoids can undergo genomic editing as well, and this approach has been instrumental in identifying mutations that drive tumor growth or cause drug resistance[7-8].


Ex vivo + in vivo = the most effective strategy

Animal models, especially patient-derived xenograft mouse models, are a critical bridge between preclinical studies and clinical trials. However, due to the lower costs and the compatibility with high throughput analysis, ex vivo tumor cultures are still the preferred method for ranking therapeutic agents, determining drug combination regimens, investigating mechanisms of action, and validating targets. Additionally, ex vivo tumor cultures are essential when studying certain hematological tumors, which are difficult to engraft and cannot be passaged in vivo because of their “liquid” nature.

Both ex vivo and in vivo studies continue to work together to advance oncology research, but each year brings new advances in ex vivo culture systems that enhance their overall impact in predicting treatment responses.


Click to download our TumorGraft3D Platform Fact Sheet.


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Are you in the Matrix? Using Matrix vs Matrix-free assays in ex vivo culture platforms

6/15/23 2:00 PM / by Champions Oncology posted in Ex Vivo Platforms

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TumorGraft3D models are Champions’ three-dimensional (3D) ex vivo tissue cultures that mimic the structure and function of tumors in vivo. They are innovative tools for studying tissue physiology, pathophysiology, and drug discovery. These models can be derived from various tissues, such as the brain, liver, intestine, etc., and can self-organize into complex structures resembling their respective tumor locations and are cultured in a matrix-free environment. The establishment and growth of 3D tissue culture models require the models to interact with the myriad of cellular and structural components within the tumor microenvironment. In this blog, we will explore the differences between matrix and matrix-free conditions in 3D tissue cultures.

Traditionally, 3D tissue culture models have been cultured using a matrix-based approach, where the supportive extracellular matrix (ECM) is derived from natural or synthetic sources. Commonly used matrices include Matrigel, laminin, collagen, and hyaluronic acid. Matrigel is the most commonly used matrix for 3D tissue cultures due to its ability to mimic the natural basement membrane of the tissue. However, using matrices can also pose several challenges, such as batch-to-batch variability, limited scalability, high costs, and difficulty in downstream analysis. Additionally, animal-derived matrices, such as Matrigel, can introduce xenobiotic components that may impact the reproducibility and translatability of the results across the different species.


Matrix-free approaches, on the other hand, offer an alternative to matrix-based assays. These approaches allow the self-organization of 3D tissue culture models without the use of an exogenous matrix. Matrix-free approaches are based on the principle that extracellular matrix components can be provided by the models themselves, where the cellular component of the 3D structure secretes and organizes the matrix components in a more physiological way generating a supportive microenvironment. There are several matrix-free approaches available, including hanging drop and rotary culture. These approaches offer several advantages over matrix-based assays, such as scalability, reproducibility, and compatibility with downstream analysis. In addition, this technique overcomes the species-specific differences between the cells and the matrix which will negatively influence the human translatability of the findings.


Hanging drop cultures involve the formation of 3D tissue culture models in a droplet of culture medium suspended upside down. This method provides a low-adhesion environment for the models to organize and secrete their own matrix components. Rotary culture is another matrix-free approach that involves the constant rotation of a culture vessel, allowing the models to grow and form a 3D structure without the need for a supporting matrix.



Both matrix-based and matrix-free assays have pros and cons for 3D tissue cultures. Matrix-based assays mimic the ECM of the tissue providing an artificial microenvironment for model growth. Beyond batch-to-batch variability, limited scalability, and high costs; including matrix in your ex vivo cultures can also represent a biological problem. Given the artificial architecture of the matrix, it imposes unnatural stiffness and pre-defined structures that will influence the hierarchical organization of the cells during 3D structure generation. Matrix-free assays offer an alternative that eliminates the need for exogenous matrix components and provides a low-adhesion environment for the 3D tissue culture growth for a fully human and more physiological microenvironment. While matrix-free approaches are promising, they are not without their challenges. Specifically, there is the need for ad-hoc development of various protocols for each different tumor type, including rigorous procedures for optimization and standardization to ensure results are reproducible.


In summary, the decision to use matrix or matrix-free culture conditions in 3D tissue culture assays can influence the downstream translatability of your assay.  Researchers should evaluate the differences and understand how using a matrix or matrix-free culture conditions can impact their research.  


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1) Loewa, A., Feng, J.J. & Hedtrich, S. Human disease models in drug development. Nat Rev Bioeng (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44222-023-00063-3

2) Proietto M, Crippa M, Damiani C, Pasquale V, Sacco E, Vanoni M, Gilardi M. Tumor heterogeneity: preclinical models, emerging technologies, and future applications. Front Oncol. 2023 Apr 28;13:1164535. doi: 10.3389/fonc.2023.1164535. PMID: 37188201; PMCID: PMC10175698.   

3) LeSavage BL, Suhar RA, Broguiere N, Lutolf MP, Heilshorn SC. Next-generation cancer organoids. Nat Mater. 2022 Feb;21(2):143-159. doi: 10.1038/s41563-021-01057-5. Epub 2021 Aug 12. PMID: 34385685.

4) Kozlowski MT, Crook CJ, Ku HT. Towards organoid culture without Matrigel. Commun Biol. 2021 Dec 10;4(1):1387. doi: 10.1038/s42003-021-02910-8. PMID: 34893703; PMCID: PMC8664924.

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Top 3 Considerations for Using Ex Vivo Hematologic Models

5/25/23 10:22 AM / by Champions Oncology posted in Ex Vivo Platforms

Ex vivo Systems

Advances in precision medicine have transformed treatments for many types of solid tumors, but similar treatment options have been more limited for hematologic oncology. Now, new ex vivo hematologic oncology models are being developed that use patient-derived lymphoma or leukemia cells for screening experimental drugs or biologics.

The lower cost associated with ex vivo drug screening studies compared to in vivo ones makes these platforms ideal for large scale screening of therapeutic agents before progressing to in vivo studies with the most promising drug candidates. In addition, ex vivo hematologic oncology models closely recapitulate the tumor of origin and can provide valuable information about the variability of drug response in a cohort of patients.

In expert hands, these platforms are well-suited to preclinical drug screening and can inform preclinical research decisions as well as clinical care. Some unique aspects of ex vivo hematologic oncology models need to be considered as you advance your research.

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  1. Viability, Survival, and Proliferation: Patient-derived ex vivo hematologic oncology models may adapt to culture conditions very differently; some cells may die off significantly whereas others proliferate at high rates. It is critical to measure and understand the proliferation and viability parameters of your ex vivo hematologic oncology models to assure you are working with a reliable specimen.

  2. Consider Specific Cell Characteristics: Prolonged culturing of ex vivo hematologic oncology models may introduce unwanted changes to cells that can alter their responses to drugs or antibodies. Be sure to thoroughly characterize the phenotype of specific ex vivo hematologic oncology models before and during ex vivo culture to assure that prolonged culture does not significantly alter the cell phenotype or cause unintended mutations. Short term cultures reduce the risk of such changes happening.

  3. The Power of the Panel: A major advantage of using ex vivo hematologic oncology models is the ability to scale up cultures and screen large panels of experimental antibodies or drugs. This can also be done with multiple patient-derived ex vivo hematologic oncology models being screened in parallel.

Ex vivo hematologic oncology models have advanced significantly as ex vivo drug screening platforms have emerged. With our expertise and our large bank of ex vivo hematologic oncology models, at Champions Oncology, we are well poised to help you advance your preclinical therapeutic screening. Leveraging the multi-omics and multimodal characterization of our ex vivo hematologic oncology models will help you narrow down your drug candidates and speed up the trajectory to clinical investigation.

Learn more about Champions' Hematological VitroScreen

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UnTIL We Meet Again: Testing TIL Therapies in an Ex Vivo Platform

3/7/23 1:15 PM / by Champions Oncology posted in Immuno-Oncology, Ex Vivo Platforms

3D Rendering of a Natural Killer Cell (NK Cell) destroying a cancer cell

Tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL)-based immunotherapy is currently at the forefront of cutting-edge immuno-oncology treatments. TILs are a type of adoptive cellular therapy (ACT) using lymphocytes that are found within tumor tissues; most of these lymphocytes are T cells that can specifically target tumor cells. For TIL-based therapies, these T cells are harvested from a tumor biopsy, expanded ex vivo, and infused back into the patient. Advances in TIL-based therapies are driven by preclinical characterization and screening of TILs against a wide array of tumor types.

Consider these factors related to preclinical TIL therapy studies as you develop new research protocols:

  1. Wanted Alive, Not Dead: The development of plate-based TIL assays offers users flexibility and scalability, but it is critical to assess the viability of cultured TILs at the outset of any of these assays. Some TIL cultures are prone to high levels of cell death over time, and culture conditions may need to be optimized to include different cytokines and growth factors to promote viability as well as growth and expansion of tumor-specific T cells.

  2. Scientist injecting liquid into a microtiter plate Cell Selection: Optimal TIL culture conditions should enhance the expansion of tumor-specific T cells but may also involve a step to deplete other cells prior to expansion. This may involve the depletion of adherent cell subsets with immunosuppressive characteristics such as myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs). Removing these cells from ex vivo culture allows TILs to expand and differentiate into T cells with tumor-specific cytotoxic activity.

  3. TIL Test Drive: Ex vivo expansion of TILs must include functional assays in order to ascertain if these cells have anti-tumor properties. Analysis typically includes flow cytometry-based immunophenotyping and characterization of cytokine production and tumor-specific cytotoxicity. An ideal TIL product will show tumor-specific activity with limited off-target effects, and TILs will retain a phenotype that is predicted to be well-tolerated in a patient upon re-infusion.


Preclinical TIL studies are continuing to expand the usage of TIL-based therapies against a wide range of solid tumors, and this field of study will advance further as ex vivo culture and analysis techniques improve.


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