Tumor cells change when put into a ‘tight spot’

Konstantinos Konstantopoulos addresses audience at 2012 NanoBio Symposium. Photo by Mary Spiro/JHU

“Cell migration represents a key aspect of cancer metastasis,” said Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Konstantopoulos was among the invited faculty speakers for the 2012 NanoBio Symposium.

Cancer metastasis, the migration of cancer cells from a primary tumor to other parts of the body, represents an important topic among professors affiliated with Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Surprisingly, 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused from this spread, not from the primary tumor alone. Konstantopoulos and his lab group are working to understand the metastatic process better so that effective preventions and treatments can be established. His students have studied metastatic breast cancer cells in the lab by tracking their migration patterns. The group has fabricated a microfluidic-based cell migration chamber that contains channels of varying widths. Cells are seeded at one opening of the channels, and fetal bovine serum is used as a chemoattractant at the other opening of the channels to induce the cells to move across. These channels can be as big as 50 µm wide, where cells can spread out to the fullest extent, or as small as 3 µm wide, where cells have to narrowly squeeze themselves to fit through.

A current dogma in the field of cell migration is that actin polymerization and actomyosin contractility give cells the flexibility they need to protrude and contract across a matrix in order to migrate. When Konstantopoulos’s students observed cells in the wide, 50 µm-wide channels, they saw actin distributed over the entirety of the cells, as expected. They also observed that when the cells were treated with drugs that inhibited actin polymerization and actomyosin contractility, they did not migrate across the channels, also as expected.

However, when the students observed cells in the narrow, 3 µm-wide channels, they were surprised to see actin only at the leading and trailing edges of the cells. Additionally, the inhibition of actin polymerization and actomyosin contractility did not affect the cells’ ability to migrate.

“Actin polymerization and actomyosin contractility are critical for 2D cell migration but dispensable for migration through narrow channels,” concluded Konstantopoulos. The data challenged what many had previously believed about cell migration by showing that cells in confined spaces did not need these actin components to migrate.

These findings are indeed important in the context of cancer metastasis, where cells must migrate through a heterogeneous environment of both wide and narrow areas. Konstantopoulos’s data gives a better mechanistic understanding of the different methods cancer cells use to migrate in diverse surroundings.

Future studies in the Konstantopoulos lab will focus on how tumor cells decide which migratory paths to take. INBT-sponsored graduate student Colin Paul has developed an additional microfluidic device that contains channels with bifurcations. He hopes to determine what factors guide a cell in one direction versus another. The Konstantopoulos lab hopes to continue to understand exactly how tumor cells migrate so that new therapies can eventually be developed to stop metastasis.

Story by Allison Chambliss, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with interests in cellular biophysics and epigenetics.

Watch a video related to this research here.

Konstantopoulos reported these findings in October 2012 The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.  Read the article online here.

 

Cell’s ‘cap’ of bundled fibers could yield clues to disease

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Doctoral student Shyam Khatau, left, and Denis Wirtz, director of the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center, played a key role in finding a bundled “cap” of thread-like fibers that holds a cell’s nucleus in its proper place. Photo by Will Kirk, Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu.

Doctoral student Shyam Khatau, left, and Denis Wirtz, director of the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center, played a key role in finding a bundled “cap” of thread-like fibers that holds a cell’s nucleus in its proper place. Photo by Will Kirk, Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu.

It turns out that wearing a cap is good for you, at least if you are a mammal cell.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center have shown that in healthy cells, a bundled “cap” of thread-like fibers holds the cell’s nucleus, its genetic storehouse, in its proper place. Understanding this cap’s influence on cell and nuclear shape, the researchers say, could provide clues to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and the age-accelerating condition known as progeria.

“Under a microscope, the nucleus of a sick cell appears to bulge toward the top, while the nucleus of a healthy cell appears as a flattened disk that clings to the base,” said principal investigator Denis Wirtz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Engineering in Oncology Center. “If we can figure out how and why this shape-changing occurs, we may learn how to detect, treat or perhaps even prevent some serious medical disorders.”

Scientists have known that misshapen nuclei are an indicator of disease, Wirtz said, but they were not certain how a cell controlled the shape of its nucleus, the structure in mammal cells where genetic material resides. In a study published in the Nov. 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, the research team led by Wirtz reported the discovery of a fibrous structure that holds the nucleus in its place. The researchers call this new network structure the perinuclear actin cap.

“In healthy cells, the perinuclear actin cap is a domed structure of bundled filaments that sits above the nucleus, sort of like a net that is tethered all around to the perimeter of the cell membrane,”

Wirtz said. This configuration pushes the nucleus down toward the base of the cell and also creates the distinctive flattened shape of normal cells. Cells with cancer, muscular dystrophy or progeria, however, lack this distinctive cap, allowing the nucleus to float upward toward the top of the cell’s membrane. These diseased cells may appear more rounded and bulbous.

“The cap controls the shape of the nucleus by controlling the shape of the cell itself,” Wirtz said.

The perinuclear actin cap was discovered while the team was trying to find out if cell shape controls nucleus shape. By growing cells on a surface with alternating sticky and non-sticky stripes, the researchers noticed that as cells grew along a sticky stripe, their nuclei elongated as well. Using a confocal microscope — a special kind of microscope that can view an object one “slice” at a time — doctoral student Shyam Khatau was able to reconstruct the cell in three dimensions. By stacking the confocal microscope images together, Khatau, who is affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, was able to produce short movies showing the 3-D structure of the cells, the nucleus and the perinuclear actin cap. (The movies are online here or below.)

“That’s when we saw the cap,” Khatau said, “and Dr. Wirtz realized we were on to something.”

The cap’s role in disease became evident when Khatau tested cells without the gene to produce lamin A/C, a protein found in the membrane of the nucleus of normal cells but absent in the nuclear membrane of cells from people with muscular dystrophy. Cells without lamin A/C failed to produce the perinuclear actin cap.

“We next plan to study how the cap’s effect on the shape of the nucleus affects what genes the cells express,” said Wirtz.

Khatau, who is pursuing his doctorate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is lead author of the journal article.

Additional Johns Hopkins authors on this paper are Wirtz; doctoral student Christopher M. Hale and senior Meet Patel from the Whiting School of Engineering’s  Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and Peter C. Searson, a professor in the school’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Other co-authors were P. J. Stewart-Hutchinson and Didier Hodzic from the School of Medicine at the Washington University in St. Louis and Colin L. Stewart from the Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore.

This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Story by Mary Spiro

PNAS journal article.

Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering