Softer surroundings stifle some chemotherapy drugs

Cancer cells grown in stiffer gels more vulnerable to treatment, study finds

PHILADELPHIA — Keeping a stiff upper lip may help some chemotherapy drugs fight cancer. Some such drugs, including the leukemia drug Gleevec, don’t work as well as expected when blood cancer cells grow in soft surroundings, bioengineers Jae-Won Shin and David Mooney of Harvard University reported December 7 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology.

The finding was unexpected because cells grow faster in softer tissues than they do in stiffer ones. And previous experiments in laboratory dishes suggested that faster-growing cells were easier to kill.

Chronic myeloid leukemia cells grew slower in stiffer three-dimensional gels, the researchers found. But the slow-growing cells in stiff gels were more vulnerable to chemotherapy drugs than faster-dividing cells grown in soft gels.

While Gleevec and many other drugs were less efficient at killing leukemia cells in soft gels, several other drugs were impervious to the gel stiffness. That suggests that a combination of chemotherapy drugs that takes tissue stiffness into account may improve treatment, Shin suggested.


Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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