Tumor-causing cells are squishier, study finds

(Medical Xpress)—A new tool developed by scientists at The Methodist Hospital separates tumor-causing cancer cells from more benign cells by subjecting the cells to a microscopic game of Plinko—except only the squishiest cells make it through.

As reported in this week's (early edition online), the more flexible, tumor-causing cells navigated a gamut of tiny barriers, whereas the more rigid, more benign cells had trouble squeezing through 7 micrometer holes. Methodist scientists worked with University of Texas MD Anderson Center researchers to test the device with different kinds of .

The work supports the hypothesis that cell squishiness indicates tumor potential. Most normal cells contain a developed cytoskeleton—a network of tiny but strong rod-shaped proteins that give cells their shape and structure. In their feverish drive to divide, cancer cells may be diverting resources away from developing a cytoskeleton in favor of division, hence the squishiness.

"We have created many pathways for cells to cross barriers," said Methodist nanomedical faculty Lidong Qin, Ph.D., the project's principal investigator. "The throughput of a MS-Chip is at the level of one million cells. When a stiff cell blocks one particular barrier, many other bypasses will allow flexible cells to flow through."

Cancer stem cells are known to be squishier than other cancer cells. The team of scientists showed that flexible cells separated by the MS-Chip exhibited consistent with cancer stem cells.

"Many papers indicate the presence of cancer stem cells means a worse prognosis for patients," said cancer scientist Jenny Chang, M.D., co-principal investigator and director of Methodist's Cancer Center. "Yet they are not typically quantified by doctors."

Subsequent analysis of separated cells by the Methodist and MD Anderson team showed the flexible cells were less likely to express genes and more likely to express the motility genes that could contribute to metastasis.

By testing for the presence of metastatic cells, doctors may be able to tell whether cancer treatment was successful, or an as-yet untreated cancer's likelihood of metastasizing to another part of the body.

A growing awareness of cancer stem cells' role in cancer metastasis and recurrence and has been frustrated by the absence of technology that makes this knowledge useful to doctors and their patients. Up to now, there has been no way of quickly and reliably separating and identifying the more dangerous tumor-causing cells from a biopsy.

The new device, which was developed at Methodist, successfully enriched tumor-causing cells from a mixture of cancer cells. It is called the Mechanical Separation Chip, or MS-Chip. Cells separated by the device can be easily collected and studied. The current standard for cell separation, flow cytometry, is relatively slow and relies on cell surface biomarkers.

"Our microfluidics cell separation via MS-Chip provides a high throughput method that can particularly sort to different levels of stiffness, which opens a new avenue to study stiffness related cellular and molecular biology," Qin said. "Downstream molecular analysis, including genomic and proteomic profiling of the cell subtypes, provides an approach to identifying new biomarkers relevant to cancer and cancer metastasis."

Right now, each MS-Chip costs about $10 to produce.

"If massively produced, MS-Chip cost could be at the level of one dollar per chip," Qin said. "Running a mechanical cell separation will be even less expensive than flow cytometry cell sorting."

Related Stories

Cell senescence does not stop tumor growth

Jan 19, 2012

Since cancer cells grow indefinitely, it is commonly believed that senescence could act as a barrier against tumor growth and potentially be used as a way to treat cancer. A collaboration between a cancer biologist from the ...

Tracking breast cancer cells on the move

Jun 14, 2012

Breast cancer cells frequently move from their primary site and invade bone, decreasing a patient's chance of survival. This process of metastasis is complex, and factors both within the breast cancer cells and within the ...

Recommended for you

Mutations need help from aging tissue to cause leukemia

34 minutes ago

Why are older people at higher risk for developing cancer? Prevailing opinion holds that, over time, your body's cells accumulate DNA damage and that eventually this damage catches up with the body in a way ...

Specific oxidation regulates cellular functions

5 hours ago

For a long time, hydrogen peroxide has been considered as a dangerous metabolite that can damage cells through oxidation. This, however, is not its only role in the cell. Scientists from the German Cancer Research Center ...

New disease mechanism discovered in lymphoma

5 hours ago

Programmed cell death is a mechanism that causes defective and potentially harmful cells to destroy themselves. It serves a number of purposes in the body, including the prevention of malignant tumor growth. ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.