Cancer remains the second most prevalent cause of mortality in developed countries, only behind cardiovascular disease. Critically, rather than the primary tumour, it is estimated that metastases are responsible for up to 9 in every 10 cancer deaths.

The 3DSecret project, coordinated by INL, aims to unravel stochastic patterns that drive metastasis by combining a set of bleeding edge technologies: microfluidics, spectroscopy, nucleic acid sequencing, and artificial intelligence. The project, which unites partners from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the UK, will use a multifactorial approach to study circulating tumour cells from the blood of breast cancer patients and identify patterns of cancer cell aggressiveness.

The project kicked off in January, and a team of researchers from the Medical Devices research group at INL have successfully achieved the growth of cancer spheroids containing hundreds of breast cancer cells, originating from one single cell (figure below).

The capacity of studying metastasis at the single-cell level avoids the averaging errors introduced by studying large cell populations and has the potential to allow the identification of cell-specific factors that can lead to the establishment of metastasis. 

The consortium has also designed a clinical protocol together with 2CA at Braga Hospital, which will allow utilising the innovative 3DSecret technologies in a cohort of 80 metastatic breast cancer patients, with the aim of working directly with clinicians and patient-specific samples, and potentially generate new knowledge with significant clinical impact.