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Tugging on the 'malignant' switch
Date:6/16/2014

Cambridge, Mass. June 16, 2014 A team of researchers led by David J. Mooney, Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, have identified a possible mechanism by which normal cells turn malignant in mammary epithelial tissues, the tissues frequently involved in breast cancer.

Dense mammary tissue has long been recognized as a strong indicator of risk for breast cancer. This is why regular breast examinations are considered essential to early detection. Until now, however, the significance of that tissue density has been poorly understood.

By isolating mechanical and biological variables one by one in vitro, Mooney and his research team have discovered how the physical forces and chemical environment in those dense tissues can drive cells into a dangerously invasive, proliferating mode. The findings were published online June 15 in Nature Materials.

"While genetic mutations are at the root of cancer, a number of studies over the last 10 to 20 years have implicated the cellular microenvironment as playing a key role in promoting or suppressing tumor progression," says lead author Ovijit Chaudhuri, a former postdoctoral fellow in the Mooney Lab at Harvard who recently joined the mechanical engineering faculty at Stanford University. The new research finds that the stiffness of the extracellular matrix and the availability of certain ligands (molecules that bind to cell membranes) can together determine which genes are actually called onand whether normal epithelial cells begin to exhibit the behaviors characteristic of highly malignant cancer cells. "Our findings suggest that evaluating the composition of this microenvironment, in addition to mammographic density, could potentially provide a better assessment of breast cancer risk," Chaudhuri says.

Research in the Mooney Laboratory explores how the physical properties of natural biomaterials and synthetic
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Contact: Caroline Perry
cperry@seas.harvard.edu
Harvard University
Source:Eurekalert  

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