Rice researchers develop first fully automatic method to track 3-D movement of cancer cells

September 16, 2002

HOUSTON-- Sept. 16, 2002 -- Cancer researchers know the disease spreads from organ to organ in a non random pattern, but they are unable to predict exactly how cancer will spread, in part because of the limited tools available to study cancer cell migration in a controlled laboratory setting. In groundbreaking new research, Rice University scientists have designed a computerized system that can track the movement of individual cancer cells growing in a three-dimensional culture of model living tissue. The system can be used to categorize the metastatic patterns of different cancers and to help test the effectiveness of cancer-slowing or proposed cancer prevention drugs.

Described in the current issue of Cancer Research, the Rice study involved experiments on two types of cancer cells -- a strain of breast cancer and a variant of skin cancer. The researchers placed cancer cells from each strain into two types of simulated soft tissue. Using computer automation, the researchers tracked and analyzed the movement of individual cells as they migrated through the tissue.

The skin cancer migrated faster, spread further and penetrated deeper in both types of tissue. However, the research also revealed similarities between the strains. For example, both types of cells showed a tendency to oscillate, burrowing into tissue, reversing briefly and burrowing back along a slightly different vertical path. This suggests that both types of cancer invade tissue by seeking or creating a path of least resistance.

"The most important element of this work is not the differences we observed in the metastatic patterns of these two types of cancer, it's the methodology we developed to study the movement of cancer cells in living tissue," said study co-author Larry McIntire, chair of Rice's Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering. "Studying tumor cell invasion in live cultures in real time is a significant advance."

Only with in vitro studies of 3-D cell migration can scientists gather data on critical factors that influence metastasis, including:
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McIntire's co-author on the ararticle is Zoe N. Demou, now a post-doctoral fellow at the Steele Laboratory for Tumor Biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Cancer Research, published by the American Association for Cancer Research, is the most frequently cited cancer journal in the world and among the 15 most-cited scientific journals in the world.

Rice University

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