Engineers at Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) have invented a lab device to give cancer researchers an unprecedented microscopic look at metastasis (spread of tumor cells, causing more than 90 percent of cancer-related deaths), with the goal of eventually stopping the spread, described in their paper in the journal Cancer Report.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about exactly how tumor cells migrate through the body, partly because, even using our best imaging technology, we haven’t been able to see precisely how these individual cells move into blood vessels,” said Andrew D. Wong, a Department of Materials Science and Engineering doctoral student and lead author of the journal article. “Our new tool gives us a clearer, close-up look at this process.”
The device replicated these processes in a small transparent chip that incorporates an artificial blood vessel and surrounding tissue material. A nutrient-rich solution flows through the artificial vessel, mimicking the properties of blood.
With this novel lab platform, Wong said, the team was able to record a video of the movement of individual cancer cells as they crawled through a three-dimensional collagen matrix. This material resembles the human tissue that surrounds tumors when cancer cells break away and try to relocate elsewhere in the body.
Wong also created a video (above) of single cancer cells prying and pushing their way through the wall of an artificial vessel lined with human endothelial cells, the same kind that line human blood vessels.
By entering the bloodstream through this process, called “intravasion,” cancer cells are able to hitch a ride to other parts of the body and begin to form deadly new tumors.
The breast cancer cells, inserted individually and in clusters in the tissue near the vessel, are labeled with fluorescent tags, enabling their behavior to be seen, tracked and recorded via a microscopic viewing system.