Putting the squeeze on breast cancer

Woman examining her breasts and underarm area of her body for any cancer growth, tumour or cancerous abnormalities. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown.UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have literally put the squeeze on malignant breast cancer cells to guide them back into a normal growth pattern.

The findings, presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, showed for the first time that mechanical forces alone can revert and stop the out-of-control growth of cancer cells.

And, it seems, this change happens even though the genetic mutations responsible for malignancy remain, setting up a nature-versus-nurture battle in determining a cell’s fate.

We are showing that tissue organization is sensitive to mechanical inputs from the environment at the beginning stages of growth and development,” said principal investigator Daniel Fletcher, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley. “Compression, appears to get these malignant cells back on the right track.”

breastcellsThroughout a woman’s life, breast tissue grows, shrinks and shifts in a highly organized way in response to changes in her reproductive cycle. For instance, when forming the berry-shaped structures that secrete milk during lactation, healthy breast cells rotate as they form an organized structure.

One of the early hallmarks of breast cancer is the breakdown of this normal growth pattern. Not only do cancer cells continue to grow irregularly when they shouldn’t, recent studies have shown that they do not rotate coherently.

While the traditional view of cancer focuses on genetic mutations within the cell, scientists at the Berkeley Lab showed that a malignant cell is not doomed to become a tumor. Instead, its fate is dependent on its interaction with the surrounding microenvironment. Better still, manipulation of this environment can tame mutated mammary cells into behaving normally.

breast compressionPeople have known for centuries that physical force can influence our bodies,” said researcher Gautham Venugopalan. “When we lift weights, our muscles get bigger. The force of gravity is essential to keeping our bones strong. Here we show that physical force can play a role in the growth and reversion of cancer cells.”

Venugopalan and collaborators grew malignant breast epithelial cells in a gelatin-like substance that had been injected into flexible silicone chambers. The flexible chambers allowed the researchers to apply a compressive force during the first stages of cell development. Over time, the compressed malignant cells grew into more organized, healthy-looking structures, compared with malignant cells that were not compressed.  Notably, those cells stopped growing once the breast tissue structure was formed, even though the compressive force had been removed.

Malignant cells have not completely forgotten how to be healthy; they just need the right cues to guide them back into a healthy growth pattern,” said Venugopalan.

While researchers are not proposing compression bras as a treatment for breast cancer, they say their work provides new clues to track down the molecules and structures that could eventually be targeted for therapies.

All of which is good news for the girls!

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The battle of bone marrow versus breast cells

Forget who’ll win the X-Factor, Dancing with the Stars or even the Superbowl.  SRxA’s Word on Health brings you hot, breaking news from a world class content of microscopic mobility. We have to admit we almost missed this story and want to thank one of our regular readers, Jeff Boulier, for bringing it to our attention.

In an astonishing fear of athleticism, a line of bone marrow stem cells from Singapore beat out dozens of competitors to claim the title of the world’s fastest cells. They whizzed across a petri dish at the breakneck speed of 5.2 microns per minute — or 0.000000312 kilometers per hour!

Results of the World Cell Race were announced last week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in Denver, Colorado. Organizers declared the competition a success: “50 participating labs all over the world! 70 cell lines recorded! Without a single dollar to fund the project!” said Manuel Théry from Institut de Recherche en Technologies et Sciences pour le Vivant (iRTSV) in Grenoble, France. Behind the fun is a serious goal: looking at how cells move. Ultimately, it is cell migration that helps embryos and organs to develop and allows cancer to spread. The contest provided a lot of new information.  For example, stem cells and cancer cells seem to be faster than their mature and healthy counterparts. Rather than actually racing the cells, teams shipped frozen cells to designated laboratories in Boston, London, Heidelberg, Paris, San Francisco, and Singapore. Thawed cells were placed in wells containing “race tracks”. Digital cameras then recorded the cells for 24 hours to determine the fastest run down the track for each cell line. In total, about 200 cells of each cell type were timed to see how long it took the fastest individual cell of each type to reach the end of its track.

The key to victory?  According to Théry, who co-organized the race with colleagues from Institut Curie in Paris, the secret is to  avoid changing direction.  Cells that went back and forth along the track took longer to finish. Coming in second were a line of breast epithelial cells from France, with third place going to the same cell type tweaked to reflect patterns observed in cancerous cells. They clocked 3.2 and 2.7 microns per minute respectively.  Finishing fourth, at a still respectable 2.5 microns per minute, was the UK team of cultured human skin cells derived from patients with a rare genetic skin disorder. The winners received Nikon digital cameras and coveted World Cell Race medals.

What next?  Cellular showdowns in swimming and weightlifting or perhaps a full scale Cyto-lympics!