A study at the University of Warwick has revealed a unique cell structure – ‘the mesh’ – that binds cells together and might be helpful in determining the development of certain cancers. Published online in the journal eLife, the findings could completely change present concepts about the cancer cell internal scaffolding. Moreover, the study has implications for understanding the structure of cells, since the mesh is partly composed of protein which is altered in breast and bladder cancer.

The research was funded and supported by the Cancer Research UK and North West Cancer Research.

The ‘Accidental’ Discovery: Development Of Cancer

As a cell biologist, you dream of discovering a new structure in cells, but it is extremely unlikely. Scientists have been looking at cells since the 17th Century, and hence to find something that no one has seen before is amazing”, expressed lead researcher Dr Stephen Royle, Associate Professor and Senior Cancer Research UK Fellow at the division of Biomedical Cell Biology at Warwick Medical School.

Researchers made this discovery ‘accidentally’ while examining gaps between microtubules – the ‘internal skeleton and framework’ of a cell. Gaps in celss which are undergoing divison are extremely small, almost 25 nanometer wide. While looking at mitotic spindles (made from the microtubules) in dividing cells via tomography, the unique ‘mesh’ was discovered.

With the help of 3D imaging, it was observed that this mesh binds the microtubules together, establishing a support system apart from the ‘inter-microtubular bridges’ that are known to exist. Dr Royle described it as a ‘web-like’ structure holding all the microtubules in place.

Linking The Mesh With Cancer

For accurate division, a cell shares chromosome with its daughter cells, otherwise the latter might receive an altered number. This is known as aneuploidy and has been associated with the development of various tumors. The mitotic spindle is responsible for maintaining this chromosomal division, and the researchers believe the mesh has an important part to play – the correct amount of support from the mesh determines the accuracy of chromosome transfer.

It was observed that one of the proteins from the mesh – TACC3 – was overproduced in some types of cancers. Replicating this situation in the lab showed alterations in the mesh and microtubules, leading to problems with chromosome sharing and consequently cell division.

Future Prospects

Dr Emma Smith, Senior Science Communications Officer at Cancer Research UK stated that these early findings provide new insight into a structure that facilitates and maintains cell division. She suggested that using this knowledge scientists could study faults in cell division and develop drugs to prevent such occurrences.