By Erin Hicks, Everyday Health Staff Writer
TUESDAY Dec. 18, 2012 - Compressing breast cancer cells may stop out-of-control growth of the cells and prompt them to revert back to a normal growth pattern, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
"An early signal, in the form of compression, appears to get these malignant cells back on the right track," said principal investigator Daniel Fletcher, PhD, professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Berkeley Lab, in a news release.
Breast tissue shrinks and grows throughout a woman's life in response to changes in her reproductive cycle, and stops growing when it needs to. One of the early signs of breast cancer is the breakdown of this normal growth pattern. Cancer cells may continue to grow irregularly when they should stop growing, and studies show that the cells may not rotate correctly when forming the structures that secrete milk during lactation.
The Berkeley scientists said that a malignant cell may not always form a tumor — its fate is dependent on its interaction with the surrounding micro-environment. Their early experiments demonstrated that manipulating the environment could change the mutations of the cells.
What's different about this latest experiment is that it introduces the concept of mechanical rather than chemical influences on cancer cell growth, according to the release.
Researchers grew malignant breast cells in a gelatin-like substance that had been injected into flexible silicone chambers. The flexible chambers allowed the researchers to apply compressive force in the first stages of the cell's development.
They found that the cells stopped growing once the breast tissue structure was formed, even when the force was removed.
"Malignant cells have not completely forgotten how to be healthy; they just need the right cues to guide them back into a healthy growth pattern," said Gautham Venugopalan, PhD, a member of Berkeley Lab.
While researchers say compression alone is not likely to become a breast cancer therapy, the study findings give researchers new clues to that will help them track down the molecules and structures that could eventually lead to a new kind of breast cancer treatment.
"People have known for centuries that physical force can influence our bodies," said Venugopalan. "When we lift weights, our muscles get bigger. The force of gravity is essential to keeping our bones strong. Here we show that physical force can play a role in the growth — and reversion — of cancer cells."
The findings were presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Francisco.