Boppart receives NIH grant to study mechanics of cancerous cells

ECE News

Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Boppart received $1 million under the NIH Research Challenge grant program.
  • Boppart is collaborating with a researcher from Purdue to study tumor growth dynamics.
  • Questions being investigated are whether mechanical properties of cells offer insight into diagnosing tumors.

Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart

Of more than 20,000 proposals, ECE Professor Stephen Allen Boppart's proposal was one of approximately 4% chosen to receive $1 million under the NIH Research Challenge grant program.

The project, “Investigating Tumor Growth Dynamics Using Multimodal Contrast Agents and Optical Coherence Elastography,” is a collaboration with Alex Wei, a chemist at Purdue who specializes in fabricating nanoparticles.

The proposal combined Boppart’s research group’s optical imaging techniques and ability to measure mechanical properties on the micron scale with Wei’s expertise on making specific magnetic nanoparticles. Together, they will examine the biomechanics of cells and tissues in normal and cancerous states, and the transition that occurs in between.

“This research opens up many new directions,” Boppart said. “Even from the most basic science level, can we understand how the mechanical properties of cells change in cancer? That may help us understand how cancer spreads.”

The mechanical properties of a normal cell are different from those of a tumor cell. When normal cells become tumor cells, they often become less stiff, squeeze through different channels, and spread. But the tumor itself is stiff.

“Can we measure the mechanical properties of cells, tissues, and tumors during this whole process and try to understand when the mechanical properties change?” Boppart said.

Boppart’s research team has to use unique tools to tackle this question. One technique is magnetomotive optical coherence elastography.

Magnetic nanoparticles can be distributed to tissue and when a magnetic field is applied to the tissue and switched on and off, the particles will move. That magnetomotive aspect is coupled with optical coherence tomography, which is used to measure the small magnetically-induced motions. Depending on the mechanical properties of the cell or tissue, they will move more or less easily.

“We can measure how much these particles move, and how they move will determine what is the biomechanical properties of that environment they’re in,” Boppart said.

If a cell is very flexible, it will move easily when a magnetic field is applied. But if the cell begins to stiffen, or if the particles are bound in the cell, a magnetic field force will not move the nanoparticles and cell much.

If cells that are about to change into tumor cells become more or less stiff, this technique may be able to be used as a diagnostic technique.

Boppart and his research team have shown that magnetomotive imaging can be used to target or identify tumors by attaching antibodies to particles and injecting those into pre-clinical tumor models. These will stick to tumors, which will light up when imaging is used.

“We envision that there’s a way of detecting tumors, perhaps measuring their responses, and then treating them all with the same type of nanoparticles,” Boppart said.

This technique may also be used as therapy. If the magnetic field is switched on and off so quickly that the particles only heat up instead of move, the cell will be killed.

 “The whole motivation for this particular grant program is for projects that offer research challenges,” Boppart said. “Even I see this as really a significant challenge. This is a hard problem. But if we can work on this and answer some key questions, I think it will have a long-range impact.”

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