Tumour spheroid, SK-HEP-1

The physics of cancer

Can we measure the physical forces at play as cancer cells move around the body? And can we influence those forces to create new treatment options?

An international team has developed a non-invasive way to measure the physical forces at play as cancer cells move within tissues. Their work has led to clinical trials to determine if these measurements can be used to guide treatment.

The ‘FORCE, Imaging the Force of Cancer project was a Horizon 2020 project led by King’s College London, with academic and business partners from across Europe and the USA, plus the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Neuroscience Australia.

Most cancer deaths are caused by the cancer spreading from its primary source throughout the body – a process known as metastasis.

Despite that, there has been surprisingly little work done on indicators for the potential for cancers to spread. Cells use ‘traction forces’ to perform various tasks, including maintaining cell shape and moving within tissues.

Scientists believe those forces and so-called interstitial fluid pressure (IFP) at the edges of a tumour could be useful indicators that a cancer is likely to spread, but we lack a non-invasive way to measure these forces.

The FORCE project was designed to give better insights into cancer forces but also examine the efficacy of actively manipulating the cancer environment.

Professor Lynne Bilston from UNSW, who took part in the project, has been developing novel methods for measuring biomechanical properties and behaviour of soft tissues in humans, particularly using Magnetic Resonance Imaging and rheometry.

The FORCE project developed a new technology, Magnetic Resonance Force (MRF) Imaging, a non-invasive technique that directly assesses the Stiffness Load Relation of tissue, providing a picture of the forces active within tumours.

The team demonstrated that they could measure and manipulate cancer forces in a patient, providing a new way to predict metastatic potential and determine the best treatment for each cancer patient. Clinical trials are underway.