Cell mechanics play a role in the spread of cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, the predicted number of cancer cases to be diagnosed by the end of 2014 is approximately 1.7 million, with the number of Americans expected to die from cancer this year at 585,720.

In the face of these daunting numbers, Carnegie Mellon associate professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering Kris Dahl has found a new way to prevent cancer cells from spreading — by changing the cells’ mechanical behavior.

In a study that was part of a collaboration with researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Dahl introduced 50 lamin A, a protein that is associated with normal and premature aging, into cells which cause melanoma, a type of skin cancer. By monitoring the migration of melanoma cells using a flow migration apparatus, Dahl found that as a result of this addition, the nuclei of the melanoma cells began to stiffen, impeding metastasis, the spread of cancer cells into other parts of the body.

According to the abstract of the paper regarding this research, which was recently published in the journal Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, “During metastasis, melanoma cells must be sufficiently deformable to squeeze through extracellular barriers with small pore sizes.” Consequently, with stiffened nuclei, these cells were unable to pass through extracellular barrier pores.

This finding is especially interesting because it suggests that it is not just the biology and chemistry — but also the mechanics — of cells that affect their behavior. “Cancer is a mechanical disease,” said Dahl in a university press release. “Cancer cells have different mechanics than other cells in the body. We were able to alter the mechanics to reduce cancer evasion.”

Dahl’s discovery has implications for future cancer therapies as well. With the knowledge that stiffened nuclei do not metastasize, mechanical properties of cells can be targeted for cancer cures. “The pathway of cancer metastasis may be kept in check by mechanical factors in addition to known chemical pathway regulation,” stated the abstract. This study will also shed light on the process that causes cells to age as people grow older, making this project not only useful for cancer applications, but also for finding cures to problems associated with aging.

Other authors of the publication include Cheng Dong, distinguished professor and department head of biomedical engineering at Pennsylvania State University; Alexandre J.S. Ribeiro, former Carnegie Mellon graduate student in the department of biomedical engineering; Payal Khanna, postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health; and Aishwarya Sukumar, former Carnegie Mellon master’s student in biomedical engineering.

The discovery that cell mechanics can be manipulated to stop the spread of cancer cells fits into the interdisciplinary paradigm of research at Carnegie Mellon, strengthening the idea that innovation peaks at the intersection of different sciences.