Nearly 70 percent of patients with advanced breast cancer experience skeletal metastasis, in which cancer cells migrate from a primary tumor into bone—a painful development that can cause fractures and spinal compression. While scientists are attempting to better understand metastasis in general, not much is known about how and why certain cancers spread to specific organs, such as bone, liver, and lungs. Now researchers from MIT, Italy, and South Korea have developed a three-dimensional microfluidic platform that mimics the spread of breast cancer cells into a bonelike environment.
The microchip—slightly larger than a dime—contains several channels in which the researchers grew endothelial cells and bone cells to mimic a blood vessel and bone side-by-side. They then injected a highly metastatic line of breast cancer cells into the fabricated blood vessel. Twenty-four hours later, the team observed that twice as many cancer cells had made their way through the vessel wall and into the bonelike environment than had migrated into a simple collagen-gel matrix. Moreover, the cells that made it through the vessel lining and into the bonelike setting formed microclusters of up to 60 cancer cells by the experiment's fifth day.