Squishing Cells to Stop Cancer in its Tracks
Faculty Director: Professor Jan Lammerding
How do cancer cells manage to make their way through the body to spawn new tumors? This questions maintains pressingly relevant today, as more than 1.5 million people are newly diagnosed with cancer in the United States every year, with an estimated 595,000 cancer patients dying of their disease in 2016 alone. Importantly, the vast majority of cancer deaths are not caused by the primary tumor, but result from spreading of cancer cells to distant organs such as the brain and liver, where they form new tumors (metastases) that interfere with critical vital functions. A better understanding of the process by which cancer cells move through the body might enable us to stop this metastatic spreading, thereby improving the outlook of these patients.
In this project, we will focus on the physical aspects of cancer cell spreading. In particular, we will investigate how cancer cells are able to squeeze through tight spaces in tissues and blood vessels that are much smaller than the size of cell. Our lab and others recently demonstrated that the ability of cancer cells to penetrate such small openings is governed by the mechanical properties of the cancer cells, particularly their nucleus. The Lammerding Lab has developed a number of microfluidic devices and other technologies to characterize the physical properties of cancer cells, with the goal to identify particularly aggressive cancer cells and to ultimately design novel therapies to target these cells.
In this project, we will introduce the CURIE Scholars to the physics of cancer cell invasion, the design and use of microfluidic tools to measure the mechanical properties of microscopic particles, and analysis tools to distinguish aggressive cancer cells from more benign cancers and from normal cells.
The week-long project consists of five laboratory session.
- Session 1: Students will be introduced to the basic concepts of the physics and mechanical principles that govern the migration of cancer cells in tissues, andstudents will be tasked to build their own physical, scaled-up models to explore the effect of different physical properties on the ability of cells to squeeze through tight spaces.
- Session 2: Students will use “Scotch-Tape Microfluidics” and “Shrinky-Dink Microfluidics” to design and build their own versions of some of the microfluidic tools used in academic research labs to study cancer cell mechanics.
- Session 3: Students will test and characterize their devices.
- Session 4: Students will have a brief introduction to image processing and how to analyze the data from the microfluidic devices, as well as actualdata provided by the Lammerding Lab. In the same session, students will also be introduced to the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) assay, and learn how to use PCR to distinguish biological samples based on differences in their DNA sequence.
- Session 5: Students will evaluate their PCR results and have the opportunity to visit the Cornell NanoScale Science & Technology Facility (CNF) to learn more about micro- and nanofabrication techniques.