New device delivers unprecedented view of cancer cells spreading

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Johns Hopkins engineers have developed a device that provides new insights into how cancer cells enter the bloodstream and spread through the body (Photo by Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)

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There is not a lot known about how exactly tumor cells travel to different parts of the body to form secondary cancers, a process known as metastasis. But now engineers from John Hopkins University have created a device that is offering an entirely new perspective, allowing researchers an up-close look at the cells as they spread and potentially unearthing new methods of treatment.

Metastasis, where cancer cells migrate from the original site of a tumor to another part of the body after entering the bloodstream, causes more than 90 percent of cancer-related deaths. What has puzzled researchers is how the cells are able to break through both the human tissue that encloses a tumor, and the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels.

To investigate this complex phenomenon, doctoral student at the university's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Andrew Wong, built an artificial model that recreated the process. On a transparent lab chip, Wong inserted an artificial blood vessel and the surrounding tissue, then introduced a nutrient-rich solution to mimic blood via tiny tubes. Finally, breast cancer cells were planted into the tissue. The cancer cells were labeled with fluorescent tags for better visibility.

Through this approach, the researchers could record video of each cancer cell at the early stages of metastasis. This involved the cells tunneling through the artificial tissue and also boring their way through the endothelial cells lining the blood vessel. The footage enabled the researchers an unprecedented view of metastasis, as the cells searched for weak spots in the vessel walls before applying pressure and forcing their way through.

"Andrew was able to build a functional artificial blood vessel and a microenvironment that lets us capture the details of the metastatic process," said Searson, who is a co-author of the study a member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. "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."

The researchers say that examining the various steps of metastasis may allow them to develop better treatments to halt the process, hence preventing the rapid and dangerous spread of cancerous cells. They will now use the device to test out various cancer-fighting medications to gain new insights into how they perform and or could be improved.

The research was published in the journal Cancer Research.

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