Variable voltages in the membranes of breast cancer cells have been identified, offering information on how the cells grow and spread. The study, sponsored by Imperial College London and The Institute of Cancer Research, London, might help us learn more about how cancer cells ‘decide’ whether to grow and where to disseminate. When cells develop cancer, they go through a sequence of bioelectric alterations. The layer enclosing cells, known as the cell membrane, for example, becomes more positively charged than healthy cell membranes.
This new study, published today in Communications Biology, discovered that not only is the membrane voltage greater in breast cancer cells than in healthy cells, but it also changes over time, with breast cancer cells acting similarly to neurons. The researchers believe this might point to an electrical communication network between cancer cells that could be disrupted in the future, perhaps leading to novel therapies.
“When healthy cells turn malignant, the modifications they undergo can help them grow and spread,” said co-lead author Dr Amanda Foust of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering. For example, we know that certain genes that govern cell multiplication can be turned off, resulting in uncontrolled cell proliferation.” We don’t yet understand why the voltage of membranes changes in cancer cells, but our finding and technology, made possible by an exciting partnership of engineers and biologists, opens the door to future research that might help us better understand cancer signalling networks and growth.”