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New Device Brings Us Closer to Understanding Metastasis, The Most Fatal Element of Cancer

By BCRF | May 21, 2015

Metastasis occurs when cancer cells break away from a tumor and travel to distant parts of the body—the most dreaded event for a cancer patient. It is a mystery why some cells are able to travel through the body while others are not. Researchers from the University of Michigan, comprising a team of oncologists and engineers, have developed a new technology to help unlock this code.

A groundbreaking new study released in “Scientific Reports” describes a device that is able to sort cells based on their ability to move. The device allows researchers to take the sorted cells and compare the ones that are highly mobile to the ones that are less mobile. Understanding the differences in gene expression between these two types of cells can help identify why some cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body.

“A primary tumor is not what kills patients. Metastases are what kill patients. Understanding which cells are likely to metastasize can help us direct more targeted therapies to patients,” says study co-author Sofia D. Merajver, MD, PhD, Scientific Director of the Breast Oncology Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, and BCRF grantee.

The design and development of this unique device, called a migration chip, involved the expertise and collaboration of engineers and biologists to create a tool that has practical relevance for research and may eventually impact clinical care. As the University of Michigan team explains, extensive studies were performed on cell lines representing various types of cancer. The sorting device is the first of its kind designed to trace how cells move, sorting individual cells by their movement.

Watch this video for a simple demonstration of the single-cell capture process in the migration chip. Using a hydrodynamic capturing scheme, single cells can be reliably positioned next to the migration channel. Unlike other similar devices, the captured and sorted cells can be harvested live for further study and analysis.

Pictured: Two individual cells that were isolated using the device. The cell on the left is less likely to cause metastasis. (Credit: University of Michigan)

“This is a major advance. It will help us solve the mystery of how cancer cells move through the body, which is not only their most dangerous attribute but may be fundamental to the whole cancer problem” said Dr. Larry Norton, BCRF Scientific Director and Medical Director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

While further testing is needed before it can begin to impact patient care, the new device signals undeniable progress towards better understanding metastasis. BCRF’s Evelyn H. Lauder Founder’s Fund is exclusively dedicated to this goal—the results of which will save lives and may span across the entire cancer spectrum.

Find the full study: Single-cell Migration Chip for Chemotaxis-based Microfluidic Selection of Heterogeneous Cell Populations

Study Authors: Yu-Chih Chen, Steven G. Allen, Patrick N. Ingram, Ronald Buckanovich, Sofia D. Merajver, & Euisik Yoon