Cancer is initiated by genetic modifications, but develops by altering its own physical context. It is through a process known as mechanotransduction that cells sense their environment and adapt to it by modifying their own cellular as well as the extracellular structure. There is increasing appreciation that mechanical forces play a key role in many of the hallmarks of cancer. However, the cellular and extracellular changes by which tumor cells adapt to mechanical forces are often overlooked and therefore incompletely understood, as is the potential involvement of specific oncogenes.
A team of researchers from the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials and the Cancer Research Center of the UMCG are committed to making a quantitative connection between physical forces and genetic defects. In order to identify the specific strengths of this team, in relation to activities elsewhere in the Netherlands, we have started with five seed projects. The aim of these projects is to study the stiffness of cells and tissues for two partially opposing types of cancer –leukemia and glioblastoma– by means of careful experiments and multi scale computational modeling. Subsequently, we aim to identify key malfunctioning proteins inside cells, on the cell membrane as well as in the extracellular matrix, by a combination of computational modelling, structure analysis and mutation studies. Interference with these proteins could become a future target to prevent the release of cancer cells from a tumor, invasion and further development of the tumor.