Cancer’s Quest for Oxygen

Winter 2017

This illustration depicts how an oxygen-rich environment favors migration of mouse cells to blood vessels, through which they can metastasize elsewhere. (ILLUSTRATION BY MARTIN RIETVELD)

Cancer cells need oxygen to survive. But scientists had never tracked cancer cells’ search for oxygen in their early growth stages until now—moving medicine a step closer to understanding one way that cancer spreads.

A team led by Sharon Gerecht, the Kent Gordon Croft Investment Management Faculty Scholar and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, showed how sarcoma cells in mice pursue a path toward greater concentrations of oxygen, almost as if they were following a widening trail of breadcrumbs.

That path is suggested to lead the cells to blood vessels, through which the cells can spread to other parts of the body, the team reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If you think about therapeutic targets, you could target this process specifically,” says Gerecht.

Gerecht acknowledged that clinical application is a long way off. But she said these results, reached after three years of study in her laboratory, provide clues about a key part of the life cycle of soft tissue sarcomas and also provide a proven way to test cancer treatments in the lab.

Gerecht and her seven co-authors tracked thousands of early-stage cancer cells taken from mice as they moved through a mockup of bodily tissue made of clear hydrogel in a petri dish. Kyung Min Park, a previous postdoctoral researcher in Gerecht’s lab, developed the hydrogel-cancer cell system, and Daniel Lewis, a current engineering graduate student, analyzed cellular migration and responses to rising oxygen concentrations, or “gradients.”