Watching Cancer on the Move

Fibroblasts help tumors metastasize by paving a “migration highway” through the extracellular matrix, scientists report.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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Dec 15, 2015

Cancer cells (red) migrate on a CAF-derived extracellular matrix (green).VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY; BEGUM ERDOGAN, DONNA WEBB

Fibroblasts, cells that produce and organize the extracellular matrix (ECM) appear to be in cahoots with metastasizing tumor cells, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) in San Diego this week. Scientists have long suspected that fibroblasts serve as cancer’s assistants as it spreads throughout the body, dubbing the cells cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs); now, Donna Webb of Vanderbilt University and her colleagues have shown that CAFs “clear a highway through the ECM for migrating cancer cells,” according to a press release.

This highway is made of fibronectin, an ECM protein secreted by fibroblasts. Using confocal imaging, the Vanderbilt team watched as CAFs rearranged fibronectin into parallel bundles, rather than the dense mesh typically found in the ECM. Plating cancer cells on ECM grown from...

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