What makes some cancer cells break away from tumors and spread to other parts of the body?
Cancer becomes increasingly deadly when it metastasizes, or spreads, throughout the body, but not all cancer cells are able to do this, and until now, researchers have not been able to even approach understanding why this is.
But a recent paper published in the journal Scientific Reports has revealed a new device which is able to sort cells based on their ability to travel throughout the body(1).
This allows researchers to look at the sorted cells and analyze them on a molecular level, looking at what makes the difference between a cell that can travel and a cell that can’t.
Gaining A New Understanding
“People have used microfluidic devices before to look at the movement of cells, but the story typically ended there,” said study author Steven G. Allen, a PhD student at the University of Michigan in a press release(2).
“We developed a device that separates the mobile cells and allows us to determine the gene expression of those highly mobile cells in comparison to the less mobile ones. By studying these differences in live cells, we hope to gain an understanding of what makes some cancer cells able to spread to other areas of the body.”
The device was tested on aggressive metastatic breast cancer cells, allowing the researchers to sort the cells based on their motion, and then test the cells repeatedly to examine their mobility. The researchers found that cells with more mobility expressed significantly higher levels of markers associated with metastatic cancer.
How Cancer Evolves
Understanding the differences between individual cancer cells is key to understanding how cancer evolves and becomes resistant to therapies, or recurs in patients who had previously been pronounced cancer-free.
“A primary tumor is not what kills patients. Metastases are what kill patients. Understanding which cells are likely to metastasize can hep us direct more targeted therapies to patients,” said Sophia D. Merajver, another one of the study’s senior authors(3).
Further Testing On The Horizon
While the device has allowed researchers to examine the difference between mobile cancer cells and static cancer cells, more research and testing is needed to validate the device and its results.
Researchers hope that it will play an important role in understanding how cancer cells develop metastasis – an understanding which could ultimately inform new therapeutic strategies.
It also has potential for research in the area of wound healing, a process in which cells need to quickly regenerate at an injured site.
In the meantime, the researchers developing the device have released a short video of the device sorting cancer cells, in the hopes of generating more interest in the device and how it works among laypersons(4).
Cancer patients who are curious about the device and would like to seek more information about their treatment options can call the University of Michigan Cancer Answer Line at 1-800-865-1125.