Seventh Framework Programme - European Union
An EU consortium to identify novel targets and drugs for cancer treatment

Physics and polarity

By Brona McVittie

“We take an architectural perspective in the lab,” says Buzz. “Cells are abstract information-processing machines, but they are also physical machines, like hoovers or cars. We’re not just interested in the circuitry, the controls. We also want to know how information can induce shape changes. And how cell shape affects information processing by cells. Because cancer cells are physically very different from normal cells, the answer(s) to these questions might provide new leads for treating cancer.” 

“For example we recently showed that ‘soft’ cells have problems dividing. Before normal cells divide into two they ‘round-up’ and become rigid spheres. They actually get quite stiff. Sometimes when there are problems with the genes that control cell mechanics, the cells remain soft and flat.

When soft cells divide their faulty mechanics mean that chromosomes are not equally shared between daughter cells. This process, called genomic instability, can contribute to cancer progression, so we’re now hunting for genes that control the physical properties of cells as potential targets of tumour diagnosis and therapy.”

How do you do that? “We use a technique called RNAi (see Tools and technology) to silence genes in fly cells that we culture in dishes. If silencing a gene changes the cell shape and/or cell mechanics we then need to investigate what it does when cancers initiate in flies.”

“Cancer cells are physically very different from normal cells. Normal cells that have just come out of a human are very sensitive to their environment. You can literally see them spreading out and feeling the surroundings. Cancer cells by contrast are oblivious to their environment. This means they can grow and divide in different tissues despite external signals.”

So how can your research translate into the clinic? “We will look for genes that specifically control the shape of dividing cancer cells but not normal cells. If we can find drugs that inhibit their activity, then maybe we can pave the way towards the development of a new cancer therapy.”