Breast tumor scan reveals what cancer cells ‘feel’ before disease becomes aggressive

MONTREAL, Quebec — Many people may equate breast cancer with finding a noticeable lump on a patient’s body. Researchers from McGill University say a new technique for examining cancer cells finds invasive tumors may only have a tiny and previously undetectable “hot spot” in them. Their study reveals what cancer cells are actually feeling inside a patient’s body as they become aggressive and potentially fatal.

The Canadian team finds a tumor only needs a very small region of the cancer mass to stiffen for the disease to spread and form more growths. They’re hoping the study provides a new way to track the progression of aggressive cancers before they spread too far.

“We are now able to see these features because our approach allows us to take measurements within living, intact, 3D tissues,” says Chris Moraes in a university release. “When tissue samples are disrupted in any way, as is normally required with standard techniques, signs of these ‘hot spots’ are eliminated.”

Using hydrogel to experience what cancer cells feel

Researchers created microscopic hydrogel sensors which can expand like balloons to the size of an individual cell. The team then placed these sensors inside 3D cell cultures and mice with breast cancer. Once in position, the sensor could measure the stiffness inside the tumors.

An image of breast cancer cells. (Credit: McGill University)

Hydrogel is a special polymer that swells when in contact with water and is compatible with the human body. It can also transmit bioelectrical signals which makes it a strong candidate for scientists working on repairing nerve damage.

In this study, hydrogel sensors allowed the McGill team to learn about cancer from the perspective of actual cancer cells.

“Human cells are not static. They grab and pull on the tissue around them, checking out how rigid or soft their surroundings are. What cells feel around them typically drives their behavior: immune cells can activate, stem cells can become specialized, and cancer cells can become dangerously aggressive,” Moraes explains.

Breast cancer cells usually feel surroundings that are quite soft. However, we found that cancer cells inside aggressive tumors experienced much harder surroundings than previously expected, as hard as really old and dried up gummy bears.”

A new way to prevent breast cancer?

Study authors say understanding what cancer cells feel as they stiffen in the body will give scientists new insight into how the disease forms. This may allow researchers to predict how cells will react and adjust a person’s risk of developing the disease accordingly.

“Developing methods to analyze the mechanical profiles in 3D tissues may better predict patient risk and outcome,” says study first author Stephanie Mok. “Whether these ‘hot spots’ of stiffness are really causing cancer progression rather than simply being correlated with it remains an open, but critically important question to resolve.”

The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

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