Scientists Discover New Cell Patterns

Harvard researchers have recently discovered that cell migration can be modeled after the movement of colloidal glass—a finding that could have significant implications for future medical research.

The results of their study represent a new way of understanding the movement of aggregations of cells—an area in which previous research has been sparse, according to co-author Jeffrey J. Fredberg, professor of bioengineering and physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Imagine a busy stadium, people jostle and push each other to get in. Well, cells do the same,” he said. “We now have been able to measure, analyze and understand the relationship between [those] forces and the motions.”

Co-author David A. Weitz, professor of physics and applied physics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said he was surprised by the results, which showed that the movement of masses of cells can take on glass-like properties.

“We would never have expected that inanimate and animate objects would have the same properties,” he said.

Vinothan N. Manoharan, associate professor of chemical engineering and physics at SEAS who was not involved with the study, said that he felt his colleagues’ research was promising.

“Physical laws that govern the dynamics of these cell systems haven’t been studied at this level of detail before,” he said.

The results, which were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 14,  may have significant implications for medical research in fields such as cancer treatment.

For example, the process of cancer metastasis—by which cancerous tumors spread to different parts of the body—may be better understood if modeled after the properties of glass, Weitz said.

In this case, the model suggests that future research on cancer treatment should be targeted at methods to slow down the migration of tumors, rather than at reducing their density, said co-author Thomas E. Angelini, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida.

“Perhaps the solution is to get healthy cells to squeeze the cancerous cells together,” Angelini said.

Weitz added that cells also flow like glass during the process of wound healing, as well as during embryonic development.

“If you use the descriptions for glass, it is a very good description of the motions of the cells,” he said. “That’s what’s cool.”

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