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Modeling cancer: Virginia Tech researchers prove mathematical models can predict cellular processes

How does a normal cellular process derail and become unhealthy?

A multi-institutional, international team led by researchers studied cells found in breast and other types of connective tissue and discovered new information about cell transitions that take place during wound healing and cancer.

The results were published in the journal Science Signaling.

During development, cells change forms and regroup from tight packs of to more mobile, loose arrays of mesenchymal cells.

The cell changes, known as an epithelial to mesenchymal transition, or EMT, are normal and helpful during wound healing, but problematic when spread from the primary tumor site to other sites in the body.

To investigate, researchers developed to predict the dynamics of cell transitions, and compared their results with actual measurements of activity in cell populations. As a result, they gained new understanding of how a substance known as transforming growth factor triggers cell transformations.

“Understanding this process is very important to prevent and treat many developmental abnormalities and cancer metastasis,” said , an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.

Jingyu Zhang of Shandong, China, a graduate student in biological sciences in the College of Science, also from Xing’s lab, performed the cell experiments under the guidance of Drs Jianhua Xing and Elankumaran Subbiah, an associate professor of virology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Xiao-Jun Tian, a postdoctoral researcher in Xing’s lab, performed computational analyses.

These researchers found that EMT in the cells “involves a number of double-negative feedback loops functioning as switches,” said Zhang. “EMT takes place by sequentially turning on these switches.”

Xing explained that the theoretical prediction and experimental studies together confirmed this sequential bistable switch mechanism.

“Many theoretical mathematical models existed to explain the EMT mechanisms,” Subbiah said, “but, no conclusive experimental proof was available until now to support these models.”


Article adapted by Medical News Today from original press release.

TGF-?–induced epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition proceeds through stepwise activation of multiple feedback loops, Jingyu Zhang, Xiao-Jun Tian, Hang Zhang, Yue Teng, Ruoyan Li, Fan Bai, Subbiah Elankumaran, and Jianhua Xing, Science Signaling, DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.2005304, published 30 September 2014.

Source: Virginia Tech