Now researchers in the laboratory of the Whiting School’s Peter Searson, the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, have engineered an artificial blood vessel that reveals, in real time, exactly what happens during a cancer cell’s complex journey.
The transparent device they’ve developed consists of a cylindrical channel lined with human endothelial cells—the same type of cells found in our blood vessels. The channel is housed within a gel made of collagen, the body’s structural protein that supports living tissues. Searson and his colleagues seeded a small clump of metastatic breast cancer cells in the gel near the vessel while a nutrient-rich fluid was pumped through the channel to simulate blood flow. By fluorescently tagging the breast cancer cells, the researchers were able to track the cells’ paths over multiple days under a microscope.
The researchers have engineered an artificial blood vessel that reveals, in real time, exactly what happens during a cancer cell’s complex journey.
Andrew Wong, Searson’s doctoral student at the INBT, developed the device and captured startling images and videos of the process. The images show the initial steps in the metastatic process where cancer cells break free from the main tumor and burrow through the surrounding matrix toward a neighboring vessel and escape into the bloodstream—potentially on their way to another organ.
The lab-made device allows researchers to visualize how “a single cancer cell degrades the matrix and creates a tunnel that allows it to travel to the vessel wall,” says Wong. “The cell then balls up, and after a few days, exerts a force that disrupts the endothelial cells. It is then swept away by the flow.” Results of their experiments with this device were published in Cancer Research in September.
Wong said his next goal will be to use the artificial blood vessel to investigate different cancer treatment strategies, such as chemotherapeutic drugs, to find ways to improve the targeting of drug-resistant tumors.