Scientists can finally see how cancer spreads

For the first time, engineers have made it possible for scientists to observe how cancer spreads.

This process, called metastasis, happens when cancer cells from one part of the body move to another part of the body, creating, for example, a secondary breast cancer tumour in the lung. It’s often fatal, causing 90% of cancer-related deaths. This has been challenging for scientists to try to combat, because they had no way to know exactly how these cancer cells enter the bloodstream. But now, thanks to a team from Johns Hopkins University, they can.

The engineers built an artificial blood vessel (and surrounding microenvironment) that works in the same way as the ones inside our bodies, and added human breast cancer cells, capturing video of their movement as they spread via intravasion (pushing their way through the wall of the vessel into the bloodstream) and invasion (trying to relocate somewhere else in the body).

They then went on to recreate these processes on a tiny clear chip to which they added the artificial blood vessel and a nutrient-rich liquid that mimics blood, pumped around by tiny tubes. Breast cancer cells added to the chip have fluorescent markers, so that their behaviour can be tracked and recorded via a microscope.

By watching the cells in this way, the researchers were able to see each individual step as a cancer cell found a weak spot in the vessel wall, pushed on it, and then squeezed through just enough to get swept up in the passing current. Understanding how cells get into the bloodstream so they can move to other parts of the body and set up camp there is something that’s never been seen in such detail before.

Andrew Wong, a materials science and engineering doctoral student and the lead author of a paper about the project published in the journal Cancer Research, has been working on this research for five years, with the help of his faculty adviser, Peter Searson. Searson says, ‘In the past it’s been virtually impossible to see the steps involved in this process with this level of clarity. We’ve taken a significant leap forward.’ They now hope the device can be used to test the effectiveness of different treatments, and perhaps find a way to slow the progress of metastatic cancer or ideally, stop it altogether.

Image via Wong/Searson Lab.

Want to read more? We’ve chosen our 20 favourite coats and 16 favourite ankle boots to get ready for the winter weather.

If you’re more interested in getting a new camera than new clothes this season, you might be interested in these camera accessories for your iPhone, which beg the question: Do you need a camera if you own a camera phone?

Diane Shipley