World Cancer Day: UCSD researchers measure ‘stickiness’ of cancer cells

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SAN DIEGO — A team of researchers led by UC San Diego created a device to measure how “sticky” cancer cells are, a development that may help pinpoint more aggressive cells, according to a study released Monday.

Researchers found that weakly adhered cells were more likely to migrate to other tissues and metastasize more frequently than strongly adherent cells from the same tumor. These less sticky cells also match up genetically with cells more likely to cause recurring tumors within five years. This research could improve prognostic evaluation of patient tumors.

The device engineers built is a microfluidic device, which sorts and separates less sticky cancer cells by slowly pushing them along in fluid.

For years, cancer researchers have struggled to identify biological markers to pinpoint aggressive cells in tumors. This study may provide a physical marker to help track them down.

“This new device could be the first step to better assess how likely tumor recurrence is,” said Adam Engler, bioengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and senior author of the study. “Patients with few of these aggressive cells lying dormant in their surrounding tissue may be less likely to see a tumor reoccur 5, 10, or 20 years later.”

Engler’s team built a device with a microfluid chamber coated with an adhesive protein. Cancer cells are placed in the chamber and after they adhere, a fluid is pushed through to detach the cells. Cells that detach at slow speeds are considered weakly adherent and are analyzed.

The less sticky cells have a unique genetic signature that enables them to migrate faster. Patients with tumors high in this type of cell experienced earlier and more frequent tumor recurrence.

The researchers hope the device will allow doctors to examine tumor biopsies and adjust treatment at earlier stages.

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