Cell stiffness may be a useful biomarker for evaluating the relative metastatic potential of ovarian and perhaps other types of cancer cells, a recent study indicates.

“In order to spread, metastatic cells must push themselves into the bloodstream. As a result, they must be highly deformable and softer,” explained investigator Todd Sulchek, a faculty member of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, in a statement issued by the facility.

As Sulchek and his research partners noted in their report for PLoS One, the metastatic potential of cells is an important parameter in the design of optimal strategies for the personalized treatment of cancer. The group, which included members with a molecular cancer laboratory on the campus, used a process called atomic force microscopy to study the mechanical properties of various ovarian cell lines. A soft mechanical probe made contact with healthy, malignant, and metastatic ovarian cells to measure their stiffness.

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The investigators demonstrated that consistent with previous studies conducted in other types of epithelial cancer, ovarian cancer cells are generally softer and display lower intrinsic variability in cell stiffness than do nonmalignant ovarian epithelial cells. A detailed examination of highly invasive ovarian cancer cells relative to their less invasive parental cells revealed that deformability is also an accurate biomarker of metastatic potential.

Knowing that highly metastatic ovarian cancer cells are several times softer than less metastatic ovarian cancer cells can provide clinicians with a valuable clue as they search for cancerous cells and attempt to administer treatment to destroy them. Sulchek’s team predicts that when their technology is further developed, it could be used to design optimal chemotherapies for women with ovarian cancer as well as patients with other types of cancer.