$1.9 million NIH project to investigate effects of shear stress on cancer cells

A biomedical engineering professor has received a $1.9 million NIH grant to investigate the effects of mechanical stimuli such as shear stress on the behavior of cancer cells in blood flow.

J. Lawrence Wilson Professor Mike King and his research group will develop the devices for the study as well as new cell lines to aid in identifying the drivers that enable cancer cells to survive in circulation. Circulating tumor cells in the blood indicate more aggressive and metastatic disease, and 90 percent of cancer deaths are due to metastasis.

Mike King

Shear stress can have a range of effects on cancer cells, depending on the magnitude of flow. It has been shown to be associated with enhanced metastasis but also cancer cell death. Compared to blood cells, cancer cells can survive extremely high pulses of shear stress.

“Cancer cells respond to the forces in blood flow in ways that are not yet fully understood,” said King, who chairs the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “This project will develop new technology to facilitate understanding of the response of cancer cells to fluid flow, and hopefully ways to interrupt the metastasis process.”

Mechanical cues from shear stress can be translated into biochemical responses in cells through the process of mechanotransduction, King said. As part of the project, researchers will subject suspensions of cancer cells and cell aggregates to repeated shear stress pulses and test them for various responses. That data will guide development of new models of bloodborne metastasis and comparison of mechanoresistant cancer cells vs. parental cancer cells.

The project is funded under the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Tissue Engineering Collaborative Research Program, which supports the development and characterization of state-of-the-art biomimetic tissue-engineered technologies for cancer research. The program looks for collaborative, multidisciplinary projects in regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, biomaterials, and bioengineering to analyze and help explain specific cancer phenomena that are otherwise difficult to examine.

The Cancer TEC Research Program aims to catalyze the advancement of innovative, well-characterized systems available for cancer research, expand the breadth of these systems to several cancer types, and promote the exploration of cancer phenomena with biomimetic tissue-engineered systems.