This Week in Research: Cancer Moves in 3D

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Image of cancer cells moving through a 3D collagen matrix by by Johns Hopkins Univeristy graduate student Anjil Giri
Image of cancer cells moving through a 3D collagen matrix by by Johns Hopkins Univeristy graduate student Anjil Giri

Cancer cells are mysterious little guys that can wreak a lot of havoc. One way to fight against them is to understand them better — know your enemy and all that, right? — which is why this new research out of Johns Hopkins is exciting.

For a long time, biologists assumed cancer moved through the body in a slow, staggering kind of way, a behavior they poetically dubbed “random walk.” But one group of Johns Hopkins researchers started to wonder whether the cancer cells’ random movement wasn’t so random after all. Whereas most cancer studies are done using flat lab dishes, this group decided to use sophisticated mathematical modeling to examine how the cells would move through a 3D environment. And they found that they “follow more direct, almost straight-line trajectories,” according to professor Denis Wirtz.


In some ways, this is bad news — “This means that the time these cancer cells need to make their way out of connective tissues is much shorter than previous estimates,” Wirtz says. But it’s also a major jump forward for those studying how cancer progresses. Oh, and it’s also a blow to those old flat Petri dishes scientists are so fond of using in their experiments, which are increasingly looking out of date.



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