Breaking the mucus barrier unveils cancer cell secrets

March 16, 2011

Measuring the mechanical strength of cancer cell mucus layers provides clues about better ways to treat cancer, and also suggests why some cancer cells are more resistant to drugs than others, according to Kai-tak Wan, associate professor of engineering at Northeastern University, Boston, Mass.

According to Wan, healthy tissues naturally secrete mucus to protect against infection. Cancer cells, however, produce far more mucus than healthy cells.

Mucus consists of protein "stalks" attached to sugar sidechains, or "branches." This tangled brush forms a physical barrier. When over-expressed, it can prevent drugs from reaching the cancer cells beneath. Over-expressed mucus also makes it easier for cancer cells to break away from surrounding cells and move through the body, or metastasize.

Wan's research partner, Robert B. Campbell, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Worcester, Mass., is investigating the use of chemical agents that limit the formation of this tangled mucus barrier so medicines can get through.

To determine how well those agents work, Wan used the nanoscale tip of an to push against the mucus barrier. The less resistance it encountered, the less tangled the barrier.

Wan found that suppressing the formation of mucus sidechains significantly reduced the energy needed to pierce the mucus barrier in lung, breast, colorectal, pancreatic, and wild type (natural) ovarian cancer cells.

Yet the treatment registered barely any change in multi-drug resistant ovarian . No one understands how those cells resist drugs that ordinarily kill wild type .

Wan's research points to an important difference. The mucus layer formed by the two types of cells reacts differently to the same chemical treatment.

"How this phenomenon is related to biochemistry is unknown at this stage, but it tells us what we should be looking at in future research," Wan said about his and Campbell's conclusions.

Explore further: Breaking the 'mucus barrier' with a new drug delivery system

More information: The article, "Glycoprotein mucin molecular brush on cancer cell surface acting as mechanical barrier against drug delivery" by Xin Wang, Aalok A. Shah, Robert B. Campbell, and Kai-tak Wan appears in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

Related Stories

Breaking the 'mucus barrier' with a new drug delivery system

August 20, 2008

Chemical engineers from Johns Hopkins University have broken the "mucus barrier," engineering the first drug-delivery particles capable of passing through human mucus — regarded by many as nearly impenetrable — and carrying ...

Mucin found as barrier to pancreatic cancer drug

January 15, 2009

( -- Current treatments for pancreatic cancer have failed to effectively manage the disease and improve the grim survival rate. A Northeastern University study found that the thick layer of mucin covering the ...

New treatment to overpower drug resistance in ovarian cancer

November 15, 2010

Drug resistance is a major obstacle in curing ovarian cancer but new research from the Centenary Institute has discovered a treatment that kills ovarian cancer cells in a new way that can break the resistance mechanism. ...

Recommended for you

Perfectly accurate clocks turn out to be impossible

October 7, 2015

Can the passage of time be measured precisely, always and everywhere? The answer will upset many watchmakers. A team of physicists from the universities of Warsaw and Nottingham have just shown that when we are dealing with ...

The topolariton, a new half-matter, half-light particle

October 7, 2015

A new type of "quasiparticle" theorized by Caltech's Gil Refael, a professor of theoretical physics and condensed matter theory, could help improve the efficiency of a wide range of photonic devices—technologies, such as ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.