Press release Hubrecht Institute/UMC Utrecht

Dutch scientists build colon cancer progression model

30 April 2015

Scientists from the Hubrecht Institute, a research Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the University Medical Center Utrecht (UMC Utrecht) have developed a cell culture model of human colon cancer progression.

This model system mimics the situation in patients more closely than any other colon cancer model so far. It enables researchers to study processes involved in colon cancer development and find new cancer drugs.The work by Clevers and colleagues is published online in Nature this week.

Colon cancer is one of the most common and deadly forms of cancer. Like all cancers, it arises through an accumulation of DNA changes (mutations) in the cell’s genome (the genetic information in a cell). In contrast to healthy cells, many colon cancer cells have very unstable genomes and generally contain hundreds to thousands of mutations. This makes it difficult to determine which mutations are essential for cancer development and survival. Those mutations could be targeted for therapeutic intervention. However, until now no good human model systems to study such mutations exist.


The recent development of the organoid technology by the research group of Hans Clevers allows the culturing of healthy human tissues under laboratory conditions. Organoids functionally recapitulate the organ of origin and are genetically stable. Utilizing this technology, the Clevers lab has now successfully engineered a colon cancer progression model in organoids from human small intestine and colon.

Genome editing

Jarno Drost, researcher in Hans Clevers’ research group, and his colleagues utilized the genome editing system CRISPR/Cas9 to introduce specific mutations in four of the most commonly altered genes in colon cancer (KRAS, APC, TP53 and SMAD4) and performed an in-depth analysis on their contribution to cancer development. Drost and colleagues showed that mutating these four genes is sufficient to convert a healthy intestinal cell into an invasive tumor cell. The model published in Nature can be used to study processes involved in colon cancer development and for cancer drug discovery.

About the Hubrecht Institute

The Hubrecht Institute is a research institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Presently there are 20 research groups with a total of about 200 employees. In addition to a highly interactive and international scientific environment, excellent research facilities are available for imaging and functional genomics. Moreover, several model organisms are present, including C. elegans, zebrafish and mice. The institute is situated in Utrecht at the university centre De Uithof. The Hubrecht Institute is affiliated with the University Medical Center Utrecht and has close connections with Utrecht University, e.g. in the Graduate School Cancer Genomics and Development Biology.

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