“Cancer and diabetes are two of the worst health problems in developed countries, and there’s a link between the two,” said Mingming Wu, professor of biological and environmental engineering. “For cancer, half of the story is still in genetics. It’s only recently we realized there is another half that we missed, which is the microenvironment.”
In order for cancer to metastasize, the malfunctioning cells must travel through a slurry of minerals, carbohydrates, water and connective tissue to get into the bloodstream, through which it travels to a different part of the body. That slurry – known as extracellular matrix, or ECM – is a complex and dynamic environment. A main component is collagen, a protein that supports cell structural integrity.
Collagen fibers are composed of nanometer-sized strands, called fibrils. These fibrils combine to form fibers of varying length and thickness. In diabetics, elevated blood sugar levels influence the architecture of collagen fibers in ways that promote cancer cell movements throughout the body, according to the research.
How it works
Wu compared the structure to a playground rope climber. Getting across is tricky if the ropes are droopy but when the ropes are taut, movement is much easier. It’s similar for cancer cells.
“Diabetics have higher blood sugar levels which lead to glycation and changes the structure of the collagen in their tissue,” said Young Joon Suh, a graduate student in biological engineering and lead author. “If they happen to have cancer, we believe this glycation process promotes the rate of metastasizing.”
Using breast cancer cells in their study, the scientists experimented with varying glycation concentrations and used software to track the trajectory of the cells as they moved through the three-dimensional space. The researchers found the cells moved farther and faster in highly glycated environments than in non-glycated ones.
Research passes us by
There have been similar studies in countries such as China, and points out how health is important to everyone. It is more than time that the NHS stopped its pathetic parochial posturing, and promoted useful research done in other countries. Pointing this out to Andrew Lansley, one of our recent pathetic Ministers of Health, his comment was a sneering “it’s not the NHS way”.
Well, it should be. There is the US producing ground-breaking research that could benefit us all, and I have no doubt it will take the NHS several years before they pick this up. We are so behind the rest of the world when it comes to treating cancer.
Wu’s findings are reported in “Glycation of Collagen Matrices Promotes Breast Tumor Cell Invasion,” published May 1 in Investigative Biology. Minglin Ma, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering, Larry Bonassar, biomedical engineering professor, and Jeffrey Segall, a cancer biologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, are co-authors.