By J.D. Heyes

New research indicates that there are interactions between an animal cell and its surrounding environment within a fibrous network called the extracellular matrix, and that in turn plays a vital role in how cells function, including migration and growth.

However, as Medical Xpress reports, scientists don’t yet fully understand the mechanical forces that govern such interactions.

The site noted that a multidisciplinary team of engineers from Cornell University and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania have come up with a way to measure the force a cell – in this instance a breast cancer cell – exerts on its fibrous surroundings. The researchers said that learning how to understand those forces will have huge implications for a number of disciplines, including cancer biology and immunology, and may even assist scientists with designing better biomaterial scaffolds for the engineering of tissues.

The group, led by Mingming Wu, an associate professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, devised a technique known as 3-D traction-force microscopy to determine the displacement of fluorescent marker beads added to a collagen matrix. The engineering team said that an important component of their research was finding a way to calculate the force exerted by cells as they displaced the beads. The calculation was made by the team led by University of Pennsylvania professor of materials science and engineering, Vivek Shenoy.

‘The matrix is like a rope’

The paper, “Fibrous nonlinear elasticity enables positive mechanical feedback between cells and extracellular matrices,” was published online Nov. 21 in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Matthew Hall, PhD, who is now conducting post-doctoral research at the University of Michigan, is the study’s lead author and the one who engineered the collagen matrices used to conduct the research.

Wu, who was also affiliated with the Cornell Center on the Microenvironment and Metastasis at Weill Cornell Medicine, which existed from 2009–2015, said that her group’s work focused on a primary question: “How much force do cells exert on their extracellular matrix when they migrate?”

The answer to that question was previously unknown.

“The matrix is like a rope, and in order for the cell to move, they have to exert force on this rope,” she said, as quoted by Medical Xpress. “The question arose from cancer metastasis, because if the cells don’t move around, it’s a benign tumour and generally not life-threatening.”

The engineer groups found that it is when cancerous cells migrate that serious problems tend to occur. That’s because the migration takes place via “cross-talk” between the moving cell and the matrix, they discovered. As the cell tugs on the matrix, the fibrous matrix stiffens. In turn, the increased stiffening causes the cell to pull even harder, which then stiffens the matrix even more. The increased stiffening also boosts cell force transmission distance, the teams found, which can then, potentially, promote the metastasis of the cancer cells.

New discoveries follow the development of new tools

Hall noted that the teams demonstrated that cells are “able to align the fibres” that surround them through the exertion of force. In addition, the teams showed that ” when the matrix is more fibrous – less like a continuous material and more like a mesh of fibre – they’re able to align the fibre” by creating more force. Once the fibre is lined up and tight, it becomes far easier for cells “to pull on them and migrate.”

Hall stated further that she was a big believer that each new scientific discovery generally coincides with “new technology development.” She noted further that with each new tool, scientists and researchers are empowered to discover new things.

It isn’t clear where the research would go from this point or whether it will have an immediate impact either on traditional cancer treatment or ongoing cancer research.