A microfluidic device has been created by a team of researchers led by the University of California San Diego which measures how ‘sticky’ cancer cells are and how they could improve prognostic evaluation of patient tumors.
The cells are separated by their physical ability to attach to their environment inside its microfluidic chamber.
Compared to the strongly adherent cells, the weak cells migrated into and invaded other tissues from the same tumor. The genes associated with the weakly adherent cells were also associated with an increased likelihood of a patient's tumor recurring within five years.
The microfluidic device utilises a coating of adhesive protein to trap cancer cells. After they adhere, the cells are placed in the chamber and fluid is pushed through to detach them. The higher the shear stress that the cells experience, the faster the fluid moves.
This process was used by the research team to isolate cells that detach at specific shear stresses and analyse them.
The cells collected at lower shear stress were weakly adherent while those collected at higher shear stresses were strongly adherent. This implies that the weakly adherent cells were found to have a unique genetic signature that identifies them and causes them to migrate and invade faster.
The researchers found that patient with tumors high in this weakly adherent signature experienced tumor recurrence earlier and more frequently. Cells from breast, prostate, and lung tumors have been tested by the research team so far.
The team hopes that future clinicians will be able to use this microfluidic device to examine tumor biopsies and estimate the chance of metastasis. This way, they will be able to adjust treatment at earlier disease stages to maximize positive clinical outcomes.
The researchers are now looking forward to priming tumors in mice with weakly adherent cells to see if they start to metastasize earlier and more frequently.