Scientists are one step closer to understanding how cancer spreads thanks to a new technology based on real-time fluorescent imaging.
Reporting in Nature Materials yesterday, researchers describe how mechanical forces help coordinate cell movement and influence normal tissue growth. Their approach also sheds light on how cancerous cells break loose.
“What we think is happening in metastasis is that you lose this steering control and the cells break away and escape,” says co-leader of the study Jeffrey Fredberg of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
Using a new technique dubbed ‘monolayer stress microscopy’, the team measured the forces between hundreds of cells in sheets of cultured healthy and cancerous breast tissue. The team found that cells form packs, which keep them in order. But the forces holding these cells together eroded in the tissue culture when scientists flooded it with proteins that promote growth*; ultimately this perturbation caused cells to break from the ranks and scatter in all directions. The scientists speculate that these rogue cells can then seed cancer in other organs in the body.
“We knew that these intercellular forces had to be important,” says Fredberg, “but we could never measure these forces until now.”
He hopes to use this method in the future to uncover how wounds heal.
Image: A stress landscape. A map of the forces between cells in sheets of cultured rat lung endothelial tissue. Adapted from yesterday’s paper in Nature Materials.
*Updated 5/24/11: An earlier version of this sentence erroneously implied that the experiment observed the activation of oncogenes.