Slithy cancer cells do gyre and gimble in the tumor microenvironment, a looking-glass world in which abnormal protein-fiber scaffolds and genetic perturbations coincide, creating conditions that promote metastasis. Some cancer cells manage to circumnavigate or slide around other cells on protein fibers, and these cells can take relatively straightforward paths out of a primary tumor. Other cells, however, are more likely to turn back upon encountering other cells. They exit tumors less efficiently.
To understand how some cancer cells migrate more efficiently than others, researchers based at Northeastern University undertook a biophysical study. They developed a model environment that mimics protein fibers. First they stamped stripes of a protein called fibronectin on glass plates, making sure to represent various widths. Then they deposited the cells—alternately hundreds of breast cancer cells and hundreds of normal cells—on these fiberlike stripes and used a microscope with time-lapse capabilties to observe and quantify their behavior.
On fibers that were 6 or 9 microns wide—the typical size of fibers in tumors—half the breast cancer cells elongated and slid around the cells they collided with. Conversely, 99% of the normal breast cells did an about face.
To understand what gave the cancer cells this remarkable agility, the Northeastern researchers, led by Anand Asthagiri, explored the influence of fiber widths and genetic perturbations. They presented their results April 26 in the Biophysical Journal, in an article entitled, “Regulators of Metastasis Modulate the Migratory Response to Cell Contact under Spatial Confinement.”
“Downregulating the cell–cell adhesion protein, E-cadherin, enables MCF-10A cells to slide on narrower micropatterns; meanwhile, introducing exogenous E-cadherin in metastatic MDA-MB–231 cells increases the micropattern dimension at which they slide,” wrote the article’s authors.
This finding led the Northeastern team to consider the characteristic fibrillar dimension (CFD) at which effective sliding is achieved as a metric of sliding ability under spatial confinement.
“Using this metric, we show that metastasis-promoting genetic perturbations enhance cell sliding and reduce CFD,” the article’s authors continued. “Activation of ErbB2 combined with downregulation of the tumor suppressor and cell polarity regulator, PARD3, reduced the CFD, in agreement with their cooperative role in inducing metastasis in vivo. The CFD was further reduced by a combination of ErbB2 activation and transforming growth factor β stimulation, which is known to enhance invasive behavior.”
Asthagiri's system is relatively easy to construct and suited for rapid imaging—two qualities that make it an excellent candidate for screening new cancer drugs. Pharmaceutical companies could input the drugs along with the cancer cells and measure how effectively they inhibit sliding.
In the future, the system could also alert cancer patients and clinicians before metastasis starts. Studies with patients have shown that the structure of a tumor's protein-fiber scaffolding can indicate how far the disease has progressed. The researchers found that certain aggressive genetic mutations enabled cells to slide on very narrow fibers, whereas cells with milder mutations would slide only when the fibers got much wider. Clinicians could biopsy the tumor and measure the width of the fibers to see if that danger point were approaching. “We can start to say, 'If these fibers are approaching X microns wide, it's urgent that we hit certain pathways with drugs,” said Asthagiri.
Questions, of course, remain. Do other types of cancer cells also have the ability to slide? What additional genes play a role?
Next steps, says Asthagiri, include expanding their fiberlike stripes into three-dimensional models that more closely represent the fibers in actual tumors and testing cancer and normal cells together. “There are so many types of cells in a tumor environment—immune cells, blood cells, and so on,” he noted. “We want to better emulate what's happening in the body rather than in isolated cells interacting on a platform.”