Researchers Use Light to Understand Cancer Progression

Headshot of Alumna Laura Suggs, B.S. ChE '93Light is used as a diagnostic, therapeutic, and drug delivery tool. Alumna Laura Suggs, B.S. ChE ‘93, and her team of researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT Austin believe light can also be used to help answer biological questions about the effect of extracellular matrix stiffness in relation to the progression of diseases, such as cancer. Their work was recently highlighted in a paper published by Professor Suggs in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The paper, Dynamic Phototuning of Hydrogel Stiffness, describes a technique using a 3D hydrogel cell culture system where the stiffness of the extracellular matrix, the outside perimeter of a cell, can be adjusted with light. Changes in stiffness are observed in cancer, cardiovascular disease, wound healing, and are likely involved in disease progression. Before this technique, however, scientists have not been able to study the stiffness in a very precise way.

Suggs and her team have created an artificial extracellular matrix and a hydrogel-based system that allows them to mimic what happens to cells when a tumor, or tissue, becomes hardened. Using infrared light, the researchers are able to either stiffen or soften the cells depending on which system is used. Researchers will be able to use this technique to study how cells change depending on the stiffness of their environment, which could have broad applications in the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and wound repair.

Cancer drugs may not be as effective in treating tumors that have progressed to a certain stiffness. Wounds and cardiovascular tissue surrounded by scar tissue may not heal well or respond to treatment. If researchers have the ability to soften the extracellular matrix or understand how those changes may affect therapy, which may open the door to more effective treatment. Now researchers will have a tool to help answer those questions.

The technique described in the paper is the result of funding from a three-year Cancer Prevention and Research Institute (CPRIT) grant. Read more about how this technique may be a key to understanding the progression of breast cancer.


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