New Device may Show Scientists how to Stop Cancer Spread

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Until now, researchers had no idea how cancer cells break free and spread. When cancer cells break apart, it metastasizes to the rest of the body.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have invented a device that allows them to watch how cancer cells behave at a molecular level. The results may show scientists how to stop or slow the spread of cancer.

The device, called the lab-on-a-chip, is newly developed. A glass slide contains gold lines that hold on to molecules. When a cell is placed on top of the attached molecule, the cell attaches to the chip with the help of the molecule. When the scientists remove molecules from the gold line on the glass chip, using a special chemical reaction called electrochemical reduction, part of the cell also loses grip on the lab-on-a-chip. The researchers then watched how the cells behaved – they contracted, then “snapped” back toward the part of the cell still attached to the chip. The scientists filmed the process under a microscope.

Study co-author Denis Wirtz, a Johns Hopkins professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering explains, "The cell stretches way, way out across the chip and then, on command, the tail snaps toward the body of the cell.


By watching how cells behave, the researchers speculate they should see a difference in how cancer cells snap back, compared to non-cancerous cells. The cells paused before they contracted then snapped back to the chip. Cancer cells should take less time to contract back toward the part of the cell on the lab-on-a-chip because they are more pliable. If the researchers are correct, they can identify cancer cells easily by their behavior, and then learn even more about how cancer breaks apart and spreads.

According to Bridget Wildt, a materials science and engineering doctoral student who recorded movies of the chemically induced cell detachment, "In the movies, you can see that the cell doesn't move immediately after the chemical reaction is triggered. We refer to this phenomenon as the induction time of the cell. After this induction time, the cell then snaps back and contracts. We analyze the rate of the cell's contraction and then compare this information to separate cells released under different conditions using chemicals called inhibitors. From these results we are beginning to understand the processes that regulate cell detachment at the molecular level."

Peter Searson, Reynolds Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, led the study. Searson says studying cancer cells at a molecular level is crucial for understanding how cancer spreads.

The new lab-on-a-chip device will help scientists watch how cancer cells behave. Through a better understanding of how cancer spreads, scientists should be able to find ways to slow down or stop cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body.

Until now, there has been no way to study how cancer cells break loose and spread to other organs through the bloodstream.