Cancerous cells can emerge in all locations of the human body. Though most of them have the potential to metastasize, i.e, spread to a different organ or tissue in the body,  not all of them do. Since metastatic cancers are incredibly difficult to cure, knowing if and when a specific cancer can turn invasive could make prognosis that much more brighter for patients.

A German study, in which researchers are testing the physical resilience of individual cancerous cells using laser beams, could provide valuable insights into the invasive potential of specific cancers. The project, helmed by Claudia Mierke, a biophysicist at the University of Leipzig, is investigating how the physical properties of individual cancer cells determine the process of metastasis in breast and lung cancers.

Most cancers follow a common pattern of metastasis in the human body. Local invasion of nearby tissue is followed by infiltration through the walls of nearby blood vessels of lymph nodes. Once in the lymphatic system, the cancers can freely circulate to different organs through blood. They eventually settle down on walls of smaller blood vessels (capillaries) at a different location and then start spreading into nearby tissue at the new location.

Mierke’s study has discovered that aggressive cancer cells have the ability to decrease the stiffness of the cells on the walls of blood vessels and capillaries. This could go a long way in deciphering how exactly cancer cells metastasize to different parts of the body through the circulatory system.

Not all all cancer cells look and behave alike. Metastatic potential of a cancer depends on multiple factors, including physical properties of individual cancer cells. After isolating individual cancer cells in a suspension between two laser beams, the researchers stretched the cells by increasing the intensity of the lasers. They found that stiffer cancer cells are more invasive than the ones that are easily stretched and deformed.

Discoveries such as these could have massive implications for future cancer treatment options. For instance, it could help physicians determine the necessity of radioactive treatments in post-surgical patients, according to Mierke.