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Dangerous Digs

A cell's surroundings may be instrumental to the development of cancer

3:01pm, September 27, 2013

UNHAPPY HOME  A breast tumor grown in a mouse is lined with twisted and leaky blood vessels (orange and pink). Lymph vessels (blue) surround the tumor. New studies show the importance of a tumor’s environment in determining how aggressive a cancer will become.

It’s what’s inside that counts, right? Not so when it comes to cancer, says Mina Bissell.

True, gene mutations inside a cell help determine whether it will become a tumor. But, according to Bissell, a cancer researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, the neighborhood immediately surrounding the cell is just as important.

Cells in healthy tissues nestle tightly against each other like row houses. These rows sit on top of, and are surrounded by, a dense scaffolding of proteins known as the extracellular matrix. Blood vessels act like water pipes to bring in nutrients; lymph vessels drain away waste like sewer lines. In thriving neighborhoods, any trash that builds up within a cell doesn’t spill out to pollute the rest of the area. If it does, the neighbors clamp down like a strict homeowner’s association to contain the problem and bring the cells on the block back into line.

In crumbling localities, however, cells lose

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