Engineer-led study may have found way to stop cancer cells from spreading

MINNEAPOLIS — Engineers have taken a mechanical approach to a biological problem. A recent study that shows how cancer spreads throughout the body may give hope for treatments that could one day stop the deadly cells in their tracks.

The engineer-led research team at the University of Minnesota found that cancer cells move in very mechanical ways through their environment, much like cars moving on different types of roads. These cells feel for the right traction. When conditions are favorable, they move at top speed.

Cancer cells
An engineer-led study that shows how cancer spreads throughout the body may give hope for treatments that could one day stop the deadly cells in their tracks.

“Cells are a little like the storybook character Goldilocks. They don’t like their environment too hard or too soft—it needs  to be just right or they won’t move,” explains lead researcher David Odde, a biomedical engineering professor, in a university release. “If we can trick cancer cells into believing it is not a good environment for migration, we can prevent the cancer cells from spreading.”

Odde and his team conducted five different experiments with six variable environments ranging from very soft to very stiff. They looked at what happens with two different types of cells — human brain cancer cells and normal cells — from embryonic chick brains in each setting.

In their tests, the researchers also experimented with two different cancer drugs to see how these drugs might impact cell movement.

The team started with what they knew about the mechanics of cancer-cell movement. They used computer-based predictions to come up with a way to slow down cancer cells in petri dishes. This allowed them to observe cell movement under the different test environments.

It turns out, cancer cells are very picky. When they get that just-right amount of traction, they are able to grip the tissue and move at a higher speed. It is sort of like putting a muscle car on a dry, paved road and shifting to a higher gear. The cancer cells zoom.

Researchers found that when they combined the two drugs they were testing, they were able to restrain the mechanical abilities of the cancer cells. The result was less movement of cancer cells.

Odde says these findings can also be used for the opposite goal. In regenerative medicine, for instance, the idea is to increase movement of a healing substance. In adult stem cell therapy, finding the perfect firmness could help good cells go toward unhealthy or injured tissue and help return it to a healthy state.

“We brought an engineer’s perspective to a biological problem that will hopefully have a medical benefit,” he explains. “We used a math- and physics-based approach to building models and testing experimentally. This is not typical in cell biology, but it was effective for us.”

The authors caution that drugs designed to slow or stop cancer-cell movement in humans are still under investigation, but more research into the mechanics of cancer cells may someday extend the life of cancer patients. Researchers want to undertake more studies in regenerative medicine and ways to improve cancer vaccines.

The study’s findings were published in Nature Communications.