Network of scientists reports 'squishy' cells in new cancer research paper

April 26, 2013

A team of student researchers and their professors from 20 laboratories around the country is seeing a new view of cancer cells.

The work could shed light on the transforming physical properties of these cells as they metastasize, said Jack R. Staunton, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University in the lab of professor Robert Ros, from the Department of Physics, and the lead author of a paper reporting on the topic. Download Full Image

Metastasis is a critical step in the progression of cancer – a period when the cancer spreads from one organ, or part, to another. While much is known about metastasis, there remains an incomplete understanding of the physical biology of the transition. To bridge the gap in understanding, more than 95 graduate students, postdocs and professors in a variety of laboratories across the United States subjected two cell lines to a battery of high-tech tests and measurements.

Their results, outlined in the paper “A physical sciences network characterization of non-tumorigenic and metastatic cells,” were published April 26 in Scientific Reports.

The researchers performed coordinated molecular and biophysical studies of non-malignant and metastatic breast cell lines to learn more about what happens to a cell when it transitions to a metastatic state.

Each laboratory is part of the National Cancer Institute’s Physical Sciences Oncology Center (PSOC), a network of 12 centers devoted to understanding the physical sciences of cancer. ASU’s center, the Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, is led by professor Paul Davies.

Each PSOC was supplied with identical cell lines and common reagents, and considerable effort was made to ensure that all the conditions were standardized and documented at regular intervals. Staunton said the ASU group made three contributions to the study.

Other ASU researchers involved in the project and co-authors on the paper include Alexander Fuhrmann, Vivek Nandakumar, Laimonas Kelbauskas, Patti Senechal, Courtney Hemphill, Shashanka Ashili, Roger H. Johnson and Deirdre Meldrum.

“We compared the stiffness of normal breast cells and highly metastatic breast cancer cells, and found the cancer cells to be significantly more ‘squishy’ or deformable,” Staunton said. “This makes sense because in order for a cell to metastasize, it has to squeeze through tight passages in the lymphatics and microvasculature, so being squishy helps cancer cells spread through the body.”

Taken together, researchers at the 12 PSOCs used some 20 distinct techniques, including atomic force microscopy, ballistic intracellular nano-rheology, cell surface receptor expression levels, differential interference contrast microscopy, micro-patterning and extracellular matrix secretion, and traction force microscopy.

The work has enabled a comprehensive cataloging and comparison of the physical characteristics of non-malignant and metastatic cells, and the molecular signatures associated with those characteristics. This made it possible to identify unique relationships between observations, Staunton said.

“We were surprised that even though the cancer cells are softer, they are able to exert more contractile forces on the fibers surrounding them, which was determined at the Cornell University PSOC by a method called traction force microscopy. This pair of characteristics is somewhat contradictory from a purely physical perspective, but it makes sense for a cancer cell, since both traits improve their chances of metastasizing. Understanding why is still an active area of research,” explained Staunton, who is working towards his doctorate in physics.

“Another interesting finding was that a protein called CD44, which doubles as a cancer stem cell marker and as a molecule that helps the cell stick to certain fibers in the extracellular matrix, is equally abundant in the normal and cancer cells," he added. "But in the cancer cells the proteins don’t make it to the cell surface.

“For some reason they stay inside the cytoplasm, so the cancer cells are not as sticky. This is another trait that contributes to their ability to spread through the body.”

The PSOC network went to great lengths to have all of the studies performed under comparable conditions. While the cell lines studied are well understood, part of the effort for the network was to prove they could consistently coordinate the research.

Staunton, who has been involved in ASU’s center since its inception, says the experience has helped his growth as a researcher.

“It is the perfect habitat for budding scientists and for transdisciplinary collaborations,” he said.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


School of Music annual piano sale raises funds for new pianos

April 26, 2013

The ASU School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in conjunction with AZ Piano.

The ASU School of Music is hosting a sale of pianos from May 16–19. The general public is invited to take advantage of deeply discounted pianos currently on-loan to the School of Music from AZ Piano. The pianos are priced below the store’s regular prices and each instrument is sold with a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty, free bench, delivery and one in-home tuning. Photo courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Download Full Image

As part of the current loan program, Jason Sipe, the owner of AZ Piano and School of Music alumnus, provides the School of Music with quality pianos for the student practice rooms.

“Without the generosity of Mr. Sipe, 20 percent of the practice rooms would be empty,” says Rick Florence, manager of keyboard technology and event services. “Participating in the piano sale is a great way to save money on a quality piano while supporting the School of Music.”

In addition to the piano loan program, Mr. Sipe generously donates a portion of piano sale proceeds to the School of Music for the purchase of new pianos. 

School of Music building, 50 E. Gammage Parkway, ASU Tempe campus.

May 16–17, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.*
May 18, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
May 19, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

*May 16–17, ASU alumni, faculty, staff and students can make an appointment to view and purchase the sale items. Please call 480.727.6770 to book an appointment beginning May 11.

Public Contact
Rick Florence

The School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University is ranked 19th in the country and eighth among public institutions by U.S.News & World Report. More than 100 music faculty artists and scholars work with approximately 800 music majors each year in research, performance and scholarly activities. It presents approximately 700 concerts and recitals each year. To learn more about the School of Music, visit

Media Contact:
Catherine Bickell
School of Music, Media Liaison