Elastic microspheres expand understanding of embryonic development and cancer cells
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IMAGE: Twenty-four hour time-elapsed video shows melanoma tumor cells of mice squeezing and rotating an elastic microgel sphere filled with fluorescent nanoparticles. view more 

Credit: Video courtesy Ning Wang.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new technique that uses tiny elastic balls filled with fluorescent nanoparticles aims to expand the understanding of the mechanical forces that exist between cells, researchers report. A University of Illinois-led team has demonstrated the quantification of 3-D forces within cells living in petri dishes as well as live specimens. This research may unlock some of the mysteries related to embryonic development and cancer stem cells, i.e., tumor-repopulating cells.

For decades, scientists have struggled to quantify the forces, called tractions, that push, pull and squeeze cells throughout their lifecycles. The tools available to measure force were not small enough to fit into intercellular spaces or sensitive enough to detect the miniscule movements within cell colonies.

Although small on a human scale, the magnitudes of these mechanical forces are far from trivial at the cellular level. According to the new study, prior research by the Illinois group and others indicates that traction plays a fundamental role in cell physiology.

The team led by mechanical science and engineering professor

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