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New research finds that cells trying to break into other tissues deploy a sneaky strategy to launch their invasion.

Scientists captured the cellular break-ins in C. elegans, a transparent worm that’s often used as a model for human biology. The cellular invasions are a normal part of the body’s development — but in cancer cells, the process goes haywire and leads to metastasis.


STAT chatted with biologist David Sherwood of Duke University about the work, published in Developmental Cell.

What did you discover about how invasive cells spread?

We found that when an invasive cell in a worm spreads, it does so by basically bulging out a new membrane. It kind of acts like a balloon catheter to wedge into tight spot and then slowly inflates to push aside the tissue to create a hole so that it can enter really dense tissue.

Where does this process happen in the body?

Embryonic cells invade the uterine wall of a woman to implant. All the pigment in our skin is because there’s a population of cells that invades our skin to secrete


Invading Cell GIF
A time-lapse video of the invading cell. Kaleb Naegeli/Duke University

pigment cells. This happens with immune cells as they wedge themselves in tight spots to track down pathogens. And this happens in cancer cells. The reason cancer is so deadly is because it spreads. This behavior that we find is very tightly regulated in development becomes very unregulated in cancer.

Why does it go awry in cancer cells?

We found that there’s a signaling pathway that regulates this behavior in the worm. This pathway is upregulated in the most invasive brain tumors, the most invasive skin cancers, and in the most deadly cancers like pancreatic cancer. It’s not been really clear until now how these secreted cues could help direct invasion. What’s very exciting about the work is that we might be able to block these secreted cues in tumor cells and stop them from invading other tissues. We are now trying to develop this worm to do chemical screens to find new compounds that block this kind of behavior.