LSU researchers studying how cancer cells recruit

The pandemic may have halted the world, but it did not stop LSU Engineering students from continuing cancer research.

Under the supervision of LSU Biological Engineering Assistant Professor Elizabeth Martin and LSU Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Adam Melvin, two groups of students are researching how cancer cells multiply and “convince” healthy cells to join them.

“This project is providing a novel technology that’s going to allow us to see how breast cancer cells talk to neighboring cells,” Melvin said. “Breast cancer cells are like a bully, convincing their neighbors to help them. Understanding how they con neighboring cells into joining them will give us a better understanding on how to treat cancer.”

According to Martin, previous breast cancer research has strictly focused on the cancer cells, with the assumption that there’s something specific to them that would induce resistance to therapies or cancer cells returning.

“More recently, studies show that cell tissue surrounding cancer cells may be a driving mechanism to resistance and reoccurrence,” she said. “By pinpointing specific components and interactions through cancer cells, we can identify what causes this.”

Melvin and Martin have collaborated on multiple breast cancer research projects in the past three years, with their most recent project involving a biological engineering senior design team and chemical engineering students. The pair had already begun designing a device to study how cells talk to one another. One of the challenges, however, was that it requires sampling and visualization. Together the two teams of students created a specialized incubator.

“Our goal was to create an incubator that allowed the microfluidic device system in the incubator to be sampled and get a timepoint reading so we can have a better idea of what the cells say before they get to the end,” says Jordan Remont, a student on the research team.

Remon says that cells talk to one another like people have conversations. If someone gets mad, you wonder what the other person said to make them so angry. This is much like a cell morphing into a cancer cell and trying to figure out what was “said” to make that cell change.

LSU chemical engineering junior Emmaline Miller designed a way for the specialized incubator device to have three channels that separate breast cancer cells, healthy stem cells, and food to feed the cells.

“This device is interesting because we can check it at multiple time points,” Miller said. “The goal is to do long-term culturing, which is two weeks. Instead of just throwing cells in there with their food, we now have the opportunity to look at them every six to 12 hours, or however often we’d like. That gives us a more precise idea if they initially say one thing and do another, or if the concentration changes.”

See the full announcement from LSU about the project.