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Watching movies could help scientists understand cancer spread

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by In collaboration with PA Media Group | News

12 June 2007

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Scientists have for a long time had to observe cell migration, the process that drives cancer spread, via a series of still images. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have now found a way to directly observe cell migration in living tissue in real-time.

The advance, published in Developmental Cell, could enable researchers to view the movement of cancer cells and potentially lead to ways to control the growth and spread of the disease.

Dr Denise Montell, professor of biological chemistry and director of the university’s Centre for Cell Dynamics, said that the study had produced real-time film footage of fruit fly cells “that literally crawl across the length of an egg chamber while it is maturing”.

“What these border cells are doing resembles what cancer cells do when they migrate from the main growth to other tissues,” she revealed.

Dr Montell explained that attempting to view this process through a series of still pictures had meant that researchers were “losing a lot of the story”.

“Now with real-time movies, we’re deciphering the nuances behind organised cell movement that should offer opportunities for hopefully regulating the process,” she added.

The researchers were able to identify individual ‘border’ cells taking turns as the ‘leader’ as the cluster travelled across the egg chamber and discovered that a protein called Kuzbanian is required to help border cells detach from the egg wall.

Dr Montell commented: “We used to think that Kuzbanian allowed border cells to squeeze themselves between other cells as they moved, but only now do we understand the real reason cells couldn’t move. We can see them valiantly trying to detach from the wall but unable to pull away.”

The team hope that the technique will enable researchers to develop a better understanding of how cells migrate, such as how cancer cells detach from a tumour to form metastases.