Researchers at the UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found for the first time that mechanical forces alone can revert and stop the growth of breast cancer cells. The cessation of growth can happen even though the genetic mutation causing the malignancy remains, creating a nature-versus-nurture battle in determining a cell’s future.

The standard view of cancer development has traditionally focused on the genetic mutations within the cell, but Mina Bissell, Distinguished Scientist at the Berkeley Lab, conducted innovative research that revealed malignant cells are not necessarily fated to become a tumor. Their future can be manipulated by interaction with the surrounding microenvironment. Her experiments found that pressure could tame mutated mammary cells into behaving normally.

“We are showing that tissue organization is sensitive to mechanical inputs from the environment at the beginning stages of growth and development,” said principal investigator Daniel Fletcher, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Berkeley Lab. “An early signal, in the form of compression, appears to get these malignant cells back on the right track.”

The research, a collaboration between Fletcher’s and Bissell’s labs, takes a major step forward by introducing the concept of mechanical treatment rather than chemical.

“People have known for centuries that physical force can influence our bodies,” said Gautham Venugopalan, a member of Fletcher’s team. “When we lift weights, our muscles get bigger. 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.”

“Malignant cells have not completely forgotten how to be healthy; they just need the right cues to guide them back into a healthy growth pattern,” Venugopalan added.

While the idea of compression bras as a treatment for breast cancer comes to mind, the researchers says that the efficacy of such is not expected. “Compression, in and of itself, is not likely to be a therapy,” said Fletcher. “But this does give us new clues to track down the molecules and structures that could eventually be targeted for therapies.”

KVAL13 reports on the research below:

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