By Patrick L. Kennedy

A BU team has become the first to measure an important hallmark of cancer in vivo, a step toward better monitoring of tumor progression and treatment response. Doctoral student Sue Zhang, Assistant Professor Hadi Nia (BME, MSE), Professor Mark Grinstaff (BME, Chemistry, MSE, CAMED), Associate Professor Darren Roblyer (BME, ECE) and colleagues reported on their findings in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

One of the characteristics of cancer cells that help them spread is a property that researchers call “solid stress,” which refers to the compressive and tensile forces inside tumors. Solid stress makes cancer cells stronger invaders and evaders both: it increases the cells’ ability to metastasize, and it helps them resist anti-cancer therapeutics.

So it’s no wonder that a goal for many cancer researchers is to target solid stress in conjunction with standard cancer treatments. But so far, it’s been difficult to measure solid stress because that’s entailed resecting the tumor—taking a sample of it. “When you resect, it’s a snapshot,” says Nia, who co-advised Zhang, the paper’s lead author. “You don’t see the dynamics at work.”

That is, until now. The BU team has developed a noninvasive method of continuously monitoring the solid stresses within tumors. “We, for the first time, can measure the solid stresses in vivo in animal models, which is a huge step forward,” Nia says. “We can see how factors like breathing affect the tumor; we can see how a treatment will affect it.”

Being able to monitor a tumor’s mechanical stresses in real time means that, for example, researchers might learn that when the stresses increase, so does the tumor’s ability to evade immune cells. “If you have more insights, more understanding of what’s going on as the tumor progresses,” says Nia, “then you will have a better idea of how to stop it—how, potentially, to find a therapeutic target.”

The project included researchers from three BU labs—the Grinstaff Group, the Biomedical Optical Technologies Lab, and the Nia Lab. “Between all three labs, we have imaging capabilities, animal models of cancer, biomaterials, and mathematics expertise,” says Nia.

Moreover, the fruits of the team’s efforts should be a boon to other classes of experts—and ultimately, to cancer patients. “It’ll help the oncologists who work with treatments,” says Nia. “And it will help the basic cancer biologists who are looking for targets and making exams. Cancer researchers want to better understand tumors’ development, progression, and treatment response. Our method will provide more insights into all three aspects.”