Cancer Cells Thrive in Body's Sweet Spots: Study

Cancer researchers have discovered how mutated cells can sense the Goldilocks sweet spots in a human body.

Led by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, an international group of researchers has shed new light on how cancer thrives.

Previous studies have shown how cancer cells can sense the stiffness of the environment they are in, from hard bone and tough muscle to soft, fatty tissue.

They found that cancer cells have a "sweet spot" of stiffness, neither too hard nor too soft, where they can move faster.

Goldilocks cancer cell study
University of Minnesota Twin Cities engineers have discovered that cancer cells invade the body based on their environment. The discovery provides a new understanding of how cancer spreads and can improve future treatments. David Odde Laboratory, University of Minnesota/Zenger

The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Materials, shows how the team found that the rigidity of an area affects how fast the cells move as well as the direction in which they travel.

Many scientists previously believed that cancer cells tend to gravitate to stiffer environments, but the recent University of Minnesota-led research shows that they actually prefer a just-right Goldilocks spot somewhere in the middle.

David Odde, professor at the university's Department of Biomedical Engineering, said: "This discovery challenges the current thinking in the field, which is that cells only move toward stiffer environments.

"I think that this finding will change how people think about this phenomenon.

"Our mathematical model predicted, and we've shown through experiments, that cells actually can move toward the softer side."

Researchers analyzed both breast and brain cancer cells during the study, placing them between a stiffer area and a softer environment to see where they would accumulate.

"We're basically decoding how cancer cells invade tissue, they don't just move randomly," Odde said.

"They actually have particular ways in which they like to move, and if we can understand that, we may be better able to trip them up."

In the next phase of research, scientists plan to build a simulator to show how the cells travel through an entire tumor to better predict their movement based on the environment.

This study was supported by the National Science Foundation Science, the National Institutes of Health, and the Center for Engineering Mechano-Biology.

The research had additional support from the Company of Biologists Travelling Fellowship, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the University of Turku Doctoral Program in Molecular Life Sciences, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the Company of Biologists Traveling Fellowship, the Academy of Finland, the Finnish Cancer Organization, the Sigrid Juselius Foundation, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Natural Science Basic Research Plan in Shaanxi Province of China, the Young Talent Support Plan of Xi'an Jiaotong University, and the Shaanxi Province Youth Talent Support Program.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.