‘Save 2nd base’ with a squeeze, says Berkeley study

David Martosko Executive Editor
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It’s no longer National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but why let the calendar get in the way? According to scientists at the University of California Berkeley, that earnest squeeze that comes naturally to most guys could be a life-saver for a woman with the beginnings of malignant breast cancer.

“We are showing that tissue organization is sensitive to mechanical inputs from the environment at the beginning stages of growth and development,” Berkeley bioengineering professor Daniel Fletcher told the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Francisco on Monday.

“An early signal, in the form of compression, appears to get these malignant cells back on the right track.”

Findings from Fletcher’s laboratory “show for the first time that mechanical forces alone can revert and stop the out-of-control growth of cancer cells,” according to a Berkeley press release.

“This change happens even though the genetic mutations responsible for malignancy remain, setting up a nature-versus-nurture battle in determining a cell’s fate.”

Most cancer-cell studies deal with genetic mutations that cause the cells themselves to grow out of control. But research conducted by Berkeley’s Dr. Mina Bissell has showed that there’s no guarantee a malignant cell will become a tumor. That outcome, her work indicates, depends in part on what else happens near the cell.

Bissel’s work focuses on altering breast cancer cells’ environments through creative biochemistry, but Fletcher explained that physical and mechanical influences can be just as powerful.

Gautham Venugopalan, a Ph.D. student in his lab, said the idea of physical forces affecting how cells behave is nothing new.

“When we lift weights, our muscles get bigger,” Venugopalan noted. “The force of gravity is essential to keeping our bones strong. Here we show that physical force can play a role in the growth — and reversion — of cancer cells.”

Venugopalan, Fletcher and Bissel applied small physical forces by compressing silicone molds that contained injected breast cancer cells. Malignant cells that were jumbled around were more likely to grow back into normal anatomical structures. They even stopped growing later in the experiment after the squeezing stopped.

Fletcher, sadly, threw a wet blanket on what would otherwise be the most popular breast cancer treatment ever, saying that “[c]ompression, in and of itself, is not likely to be a therapy.”

Sure, doc.

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