The squishiness of cancer cells

Cells are tiny, but what they can reveal about our health is profound.

A misshapen nucleus is bad news. For any given cell, the nucleus — the home of most of a cell’s genetic material — generally takes a fairly consistent shape. But when things go wrong and disease takes hold, the nucleus can become deformed.

UCLA’s Amy Rowat explains how an enlarged nucleus is a telltale sign of something gone awry. Corrupted cells with cancerous leanings take on a different texture to healthy cells. They are softer and more malleable, or, as Amy puts it, more “squishy.”

Her research investigates the texture and squishiness of cells in our body, which can have a huge impact on treatments for cancer and genetic disorders. Using tiny instruments, this change in cellular flexibility can be used to diagnose disease, and could one day help determine which treatments might be most suitable for each patient.

While the minutia of a nucleus may initially seem too tiny to focus on if we’re seeking to understand something as complex as cancer, the ‘squishiness’ of a cell may open up a vast array of innovations and breakthroughs. The significance of basic research is just as consequential as applied research. It seeks to answer larger, fundamental questions and offers the possibility of finding answers with wide ranging effects. Sometimes starting with a broader set of questions can lead to a variety of discoveries whose full impact cannot be known at the outset. A collaboration with the UCLA medical school means Rowat’s work could have a meaningful clinical impact on the study and treatment of cancer and other diseases.

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Researchers and Community advocates take on breast cancer together

“Nail salon workers routinely handle products containing many potentially harmful compounds, some of which are carcinogens or have endocrine disrupting effects, yet are virtually unregulated,” said Thu Quach, a research scientist at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California in Fremont. “Many of these women work in small shops with poor ventilation for up to 12 hours a day.”

Quach heads an ongoing study, funded by the UC’s California Breast Cancer Research Program to understand possible links between Vietnamese nail salon workers’ exposure to chemicals and health risks, including breast cancer. A widespread misunderstanding is that only women who have cancer in their family tree are at risk. Quach’s research is one of many projects the program funds that are looking at environmental causes of breast cancer and why some ethnic groups are more affected by the disease.

“Our goal is to focus on closing the critical gaps in the breast cancer research field,” said Mhel Kavanaugh-Lynch, CBCRP’s director. “One way we’ve accomplished this is by making sure that our research is guided by the knowledge and experience of the people who deal with breast cancer firsthand. We provide opportunities for community members and researchers to partner together to answer their urgent questions in a scientifically rigorous way.”

Over the past 20 years it has partnered with 50 community groups on research priorities and efforts to educate high-risk women on ways to reduce breast cancer risk.