See how cells squeeze through channels to spread throughout the body

Observations of cells moving through small channels shed new light on cell migration in a three-dimensional environment, researchers report in the Biophysical Journal. Their findings also show how cancer cells can invade tissues and spread throughout the body.

“Our results describe how cells can migrate and deform in confined spaces, providing potentially new ways to represent cell motility in thin blood capillaries in vivo,” explains senior study author Daniel Rivelin of the University of Strasbourg in France.


Cell migration plays a key role in a variety of biological phenomena, from early development to body disease processes. But cell motility has mostly been studied on flat surfaces, rather than in a three-dimensional environment, like blood vessels and other structures commonly found in the body. To fill this gap, Rivelin and his collaborators studied the movement of cells in microprocessor channels that had either an open or a closed configuration (that is, limited by three or four walls, respectively). In addition, some canals were straight, while others had various bottlenecks mimicking cellular blockages in small veins.

As expected, fibroblasts moved freely along the straight channels. But in the presence of bottlenecks, the nucleus sometimes impeded the passage of cells, causing pauses in the movement of cells. In other cases, the cells were anchored and stretched locally to deform the nucleus and allow the cells to pass. Additional results showed that cells would not be able to change their direction of movement when entering a sufficiently small capillary. In addition, it has been found that certain chemicals can cause directional movement.

“Because initial capillary arrest is critical for tumor cells to metastasize to secondary sites in distant organs, blocking with, for example, mutant keratin may provide survival benefits,” concludes Rivelin. “In future research, this strategy could be used to identify signaling networks that change in the context of cancer.”