Researchers at the University of Arizona have discovered what causes and regulates collective cell migration, one of the most universal but least understood biological processes in all living organisms.
The findings, published in Nature Communications, shed light on the mechanisms of cell migration, particularly in the wound-healing process. The results represent a major advancement for regenerative medicine, in which biomedical engineers and other researchers manipulate cells’ form and function to create new tissues, and even organs, to repair, restore or replace those damaged by injury or disease.
"The results significantly increase our understanding of how tissue regeneration is regulated and advance our ability to guide these processes," said Pak Kin Wong, UA associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and lead author of the article.
"In recent years, researchers have gained a better understanding of the molecular machinery of cell migration, but not what directs it to happen in the first place," he said. "What, exactly, is orchestrating this system common to all living organisms?"
Leaders of the Pack
The answer, it turns out, involves delicate interactions between biomechanical stress, or force, which living cells exert on one another, and biochemical signaling.
The UA researchers discovered that when mechanical force disappears – for example at a wound site where cells have been destroyed, leaving empty, cell-free space – a protein molecule, known as DII4, coordinates nearby cells to migrate to a wound site and collectively cover it with new tissue. What's more, they found, this process causes identical cells to specialize into leader and follower cells. Researchers had previously assumed leader cells formed randomly.
Wong's team observed that when cells collectively migrate toward a wound, leader cells expressing a form of messenger RNA, or mRNA, genetic code specific to the DII4 protein emerge at the front of the pack, or migrating tip. The leader cells, in turn, send signals to follower cells, which do not express the genetic messenger. This elaborate autoregulatory system remains activated until new tissue has covered a wound.
The same migration processes for wound healing and tissue development also apply to cancer spreading, the researchers noted. The combination of mechanical force and genetic signaling stimulates cancer cells to collectively migrate and invade healthy tissue.
Biologists have known of the existence of leader cells and the DII4 protein for some years and have suspected they might be important in collective cell migration. But precisely how leader cells formed, what controlled their behavior, and their genetic makeup were all mysteries – until now.
Broad Medical Applications
"Knowing the genetic makeup of leader cells and understanding their formation and behavior gives us the ability to alter cell migration," Wong said.
With this new knowledge, researchers can re-create, at the cellular and molecular levels, the chain of events that brings about the formation of human tissue. Bioengineers now have the information they need to direct normal cells to heal damaged tissue, or prevent cancer cells from invading healthy tissue.
The UA team's findings have major implications for people with a variety of diseases and conditions. For example, the discoveries may lead to better treatments for non-healing diabetic wounds, the No. 1 cause of lower limb amputations in the United States; for plaque buildup in arteries, a major cause of heart disease; and for slowing or even stopping the spread of cancer, which is what makes it so deadly.
The research also has the potential to speed up development of bioengineered tissues and organs that can be successfully transplanted in humans.
About the Study
In the UA Systematic Bioengineering Laboratory, which Wong directs, researchers used a combination of single-cell gene expression analysis, computational modeling and time-lapse microscopy to track leader cell formation and behavior in vitro in human breast cancer cells and in vivo in mice epithelial cells under a confocal microscope.
Their work included manipulating leader cells through pharmacological, laser and other means to see how they would react.
"Amazingly, when we directed a laser at individual leader cells and destroyed them, new ones quickly emerged at the migrating tip to take their place," said Wong, who likened the mysteries of cell migration and leader cell formation to the processes in nature that cause geese to fly in V-formation or ants to build a colony.
Wong and his co-authors, UA College of Pharmacy professor Donna Zhang and four current and former UA Engineering graduate students, reported their findings in the Nature Communications article "Notch1-DII4 Signalling and Mechanical Force Regulate Leader Cell Formation During Collective Cell Migration." The study was supported by a $1.5-million National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award and funding from the National Cancer Institute.
Note to Editors: The article’s journal identification number is 10.1038/ncomms7556 and can be read online in Nature Communications: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150313/ncomms7556/full/ncomms7556.html
Pak Kin Wong, associate professor
Department of Aerospace and Mechanical
Engineering, UA College of Engineering
Pete Brown, director of communications
UA College of Engineering
Pete Brown | University of Arizona
New discoveries predict ability to forecast dementia from single molecule
12.12.2018 | UT Southwestern Medical Center
Pain: Perception and motor impulses arise in the brain independently of one another
12.12.2018 | Technische Universität München
What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...
A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.
The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...
A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.
Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...
Over the last decade, there has been much excitement about the discovery, recognised by the Nobel Prize in Physics only two years ago, that there are two types...
What if a sensor sensing a thing could be part of the thing itself? Rice University engineers believe they have a two-dimensional solution to do just that.
Rice engineers led by materials scientists Pulickel Ajayan and Jun Lou have developed a method to make atom-flat sensors that seamlessly integrate with devices...
12.12.2018 | Event News
10.12.2018 | Event News
06.12.2018 | Event News
13.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
13.12.2018 | Earth Sciences
13.12.2018 | Life Sciences