Tumours can mechanically alter growth of neighbouring tissues

10 September 2013

This image shows a merge of the first (red) and last (green) frames in a video before and after the cut, showing the tension being released.

Image: The scientists used a laser to cut the connection between two cells. This image shows a merge of the first (red) and last (green) frames in a video before and after the cut, showing the tension being released.

Local overgrowths in tissues, such as the tumours that occur in cancer, can cause tissue deformations and change behaviour in neighbouring cells, say scientists from Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute (now part of the Francis Crick Institute).

Their work has implications for cancer treatment. The team suggests that cancer therapies of the future might include manipulating the microenvironment of tumours to reduce cancer cell growth and spread.

Nic Tapon explained: "The control of normal organ growth is highly complex but highly important. When this control fails, it causes overgrowths or tumours in tissues, organ malfunctions and, frequently, cancer.

"It's well known that the cells that make up our bodies communicate by sending each other chemical signals, but it is becoming increasingly clear that mechanical forces, such as stretching and compression, can also act as a means of cell-cell communication."

The researchers used the wing of the fruit fly as a model to study growth control because it has many similarities to what happens in humans. 

Sophisticated microscopy techniques allowed them to take images of the growth of the wing tissue. They measured the forces the wing cells experience as they grow by using lasers to cut tiny portions of tissue. The team then built a computer model of a fruit fly wing - a virtual wing - that allowed them to evaluate different ideas before testing them experimentally.

Dr Tapon concluded: "In this study we showed that that patches of tissues that grow faster than their neighbours can exert forces that stretch the neighbouring cells and alter their growth patterns. This suggests that local overgrowths in tissues, such as in cancer, can cause tissue deformations and change cell behaviour away from the actual source of overgrowth.

He added: "There is increasing evidence that cancer cells can manipulate their physical environment, sometimes even enlisting the help of their healthy neighbours to do this. If we can understand this process we may find new therapeutic avenues to treat cancer."

The paper, Differential proliferation rates generate patterns of mechanical tension that orient tissue growth, is published in The EMBO Journal.

  • A new study from Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute shows that patches of tissue that grow faster than their neighbours can stretch the neighbouring cells and affect their growth. 
  • The researchers say that tissue overgrowths such as the tumours that occur in cancer can cause deformations and change cell behaviour away from the actual source of the overgrowth. 
  • The research was carried out using the wing of the fruit fly Drosophila as a model for tissue growth and involved creating a 'virtual wing' using a computational model.