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Cancer Cells Migrate Towards “Sweet Spot” Environments

Cancer Cells Migrate Towards “Sweet Spot” Environments content piece image
University of Minnesota Twin Cities engineers have discovered that cancer cells invade the body based on their environment. The discovery provides new understanding of how cancer spreads and can improve future treatments. Credit: David Odde Laboratory/ University of Minnesota
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An international team of researchers led by University of Minnesota Twin Cities engineers have found that cancer cells can gravitate toward certain mechanical “sweet spot” environments, providing new insights into how cancer invades the body. The findings could help scientists and engineers better understand how cancer spreads and could improve future treatments.

The study is published in Nature Materials, a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary scientific journal.

In a previous study, the University of Minnesota-led team found that cells have the ability to sense the stiffness of their environment—which ranges from stiff (bone tissue) to soft (fatty tissue) to medium stiffness (muscle tissue)—and their ability to move is dependent upon that environment. Their research showed that the cells can have a “sweet spot” of stiffness, that isn’t too hard or too soft, in which they have better traction and can move faster.

In this study, the researchers found that not only does the stiffness of the environment impact the speed at which cells move, but it also affects the direction in which they move.

For many years, scientists have thought that cells would always gravitate toward a stiffer environment, but the University of Minnesota researchers observed for the first time that cells can actually move toward a “sweet spot” that’s more in the middle.

“This discovery challenges the current thinking in the field, which is that cells only move toward stiffer environments,” said David Odde, a professor in the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Department of Biomedical Engineering and senior author of the study. “I think that this finding will change how people think about this phenomenon. Our mathematical model predicted, and we’ve shown through experiments, that cells actually can move toward the softer side.”

The above video shows the migration of cancer cells over a span of 24 hours toward a "sweet spot" in the middle of stiff and soft environments, represented by the gray box at the bottom. Video credit: David Odde Laboratory, University of Minnesota

During the study, Odde and his team looked at both brain cancer and breast cancer cells. They placed cells between two environments—a stiffer region and a softer region—and observed where they accumulated.

The research team also found that some cells, like the breast cancer cells they studied, have a feedback mechanism that causes them to grip more strongly onto stiffer environments, which explains why many previous studies showed cells moving to the stiffer side. However, if you turn that mechanism off genetically, the cells will then gravitate more toward the middle.

“We’re basically decoding how cancer cells invade tissue,” Odde said. “They don’t just move randomly. They actually have particular ways in which they like to move, and if we can understand that, we may be better able to trip them up.”

The next step for the researchers is to use this information to build a simulator that shows how cancer cells move through an entire tumor, which will help them better predict cells’ movements based on their environments. 

Reference: Isomursu A, Park KY, Hou J, et al. Directed cell migration towards softer environments. Nat Mater. 2022:1-10. doi: 10.1038/s41563-022-01294-2

This article has been republished from the following materials. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.