Researchers Discover Specific Tumor Environment That Triggers Cells to Metastasize


Source: University of California San Diego

Summary: A team of bioengineers and bioinformaticians have discovered how the environment surrounding a tumor can trigger metastatic behavior in cancer cells.


Cancer that spreads throughout the body from where it started is called as metastatic cancer and the process is termed as metastasis. This metastatic spread of tumor cells from one location to another in the body is the cause of 90% of cancer-related deaths. A team of bioengineers and bioinformaticians from the  University of California San Diego have discovered how the environment surrounding a tumor can trigger metastatic behavior in cancer cells. The research team discovered a set of genes called gene module that was able to predict patient’s life expectancy and also can be used to help determine whether patients are suffering from an aggressive type of cancer which help patients and their physicians to choose specific therapies. The research findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Specific Tumor Environment That Triggers Cells to Metastasize

Breast cancer cell are grown in a highly dense 3-D collagen matrix. After 7 days the cells form networks that resemble the early stages of blood vessel development. Images show representative structures observed in these environments after satining for cells nuclei (blue) and the cell’s cytoskeleton (green). Similar structures have been observed in tumor patient samples and have been referred to as vasculogenic mimicry. Credit: University of California San Diego

The researchers observed the tumor environment by placing the malignant cells in a custom 3D collagen matrix that they built and found that these cells transformed into structures which mimic blood vessels when surrounded by the matrix (which is made of short fibers and small pores). They said that the cells do not exhibit this behavior in traditional petri dishes. Exploring further, they found that behavior of the cells is caused by a specific gene module which they named collagen-induced network phenotype (CINP). Putting these cells into a constrained environment essentially modify their gene expression. Steps in future include testing the method in animal and human datasets. Researchers are also looking for molecular targets to prevent the transformation of the cells.

Prof. Stephanie Fraley said, “We are good at targeting tumor growth, but we do not know enough about metastasis” and further added, “It’s critical to have the cells surrounded by a 3D environment that mimics what happens in the human body.”


More Information: D. O. Velez et al. 3D collagen architecture induces a conserved migratory and transcriptional response linked to vasculogenic mimicry, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01556-7


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