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Understanding cell movement is a step towards cancer treatments

Understanding cell movement is a step towards cancer treatments

One of the main reasons why cancer is so deadly is because cancer cells are able to escape the tumours where they originate from and move throughout the body. For Associate Professor Guillaume Jacquemet, the objective is to track and understand the movements of the cells in order to prevent them from spreading.  

There is a lot of interest in finding out how cancer cells can move from tumours into the rest of the body. They can change their shapes by expanding, grabbing on to other cells and using them to move forward in different directions. The reason we know this is because we can see them do it. In the Cell Migration Lab, Guillaume Jacquemet and his team study the cells’ movements with the help of microscopes and image analysis. They are interested in finding out how the cancer cells move, and how they can make them stop. 

In most cases cancer can be surgically removed, and the patient will recover. However, since cancer cells can move, they escape the site of origin and begin to grow everywhere in the body. This makes treatment more challenging since it often causes metastatic lesions to form. These lesions are small, often difficult to reach, and quite resistant to drug treatments. They can start to attack vital organs resulting in people getting very sick, very quickly, Jacquemet explains.

Specific methods for specific cells 

The movements of the cells vary based on the type of cancer as well as on the environment the cells are in. These factors also affect how the cancer disseminates throughout the body. The movement of the cancer cells also differ depending on where in the body they are.  

– Breast cancer cells will migrate in a specific way if they are close to the point of origin, the tumour, but as the cells get into the blood vessels and the circulatory system they will move in completely different ways, Jacquemet says. 

Once Jacquemet and his team have found out how a particular cell moves, the next step is to identify how a cell is capable of certain movements. From there, predictions can be made of which molecules would be important for this cell’s specific behaviour. Once these molecules are located, you can observe how they affect the migration patterns of cancer cells. Specific proteins can also be removed from the cells to see how they are involved in the migration.  

– You can play the system by targeting specific proteins or use small molecule inhibitors to see how, for instance, drugs that are already used to treat specific patients could affect those processes and movements directly. We can target specific molecules and make them fluorescent or target just one and observe that molecule and the migration of the cell, Jacquemet explains.

Guillaume Jacquemet
Associate Professor Guillaume Jacquemet.

Better treatments for pancreatic cancer

The researchers in the cell migration lab are studying how cancer cells interact with endothelial cells, which are the cells that create your blood vessels. One of the ways cancer cells can metastasize in the body is by going into the blood vessels. Once inside, the cancer cells can go very far, very quickly throughout the body as they are being pushed through the circulatory system.  

– We want to know how the cancer cells can, once they are in the circulatory system, attach to the side of, and then cross the boundary into the blood vessel and create a metastatic lesion. Very little about this process is known, Jacquemet says. 

The two types of cancer Jacquemet and his team are concentrating on currently are breast cancer and pancreatic cancer. Even though the machinery in the cells often work in the same way, the cells themselves are very different. Fundamental discoveries vary greatly but similar techniques can be applied to separate studies. 

– One of our main projects is trying to figure out how pancreatic cancer cells attach to endothelial cells, and how you can interfere with pancreatic metastasis. Most cancers now have treatments which are much better than they were 20 years ago, but pancreatic cancer is one of the few were the prognosis has not improved. It still has less than 10 % survival rate after 5 years of diagnosis. 

– We also have a breast cancer project where we are trying to understand how breast cancer cells communicate with each other. Cells within the tumour are never alone, they are always in contact with other cancer cells. We are trying to understand how some protrusions, small parts of the cancer cells that communicate, stay in contact with each other, how this behaviour is regulated, Jacquemet says. 

Although cancer is the main focus of its research, the team is also working on smaller projects which are not cancer related, one being brain lesions, as well as vascular malformation in the brain. Vascular malformations are a type of growth which is composed of blood vessels that can cause functional or cosmetic problems. 

– A lot of funding goes into cancer research, but much of what we are studying, like how the cell interacts with the environment, is applicable to other diseases. All the cells we have in our bodies need to interact with the outside, since our cells are never in isolation. The receptors and molecules that are involved in this communication with the outsides of the cells are found across all our cells, so how this machinery is modulated in health and diseases is often applicable to most diseases and organs, Jacquemet explains.

Technical advances and dual specialists

In the Cell Migration Lab, biologists use advanced microscopes to observe the cells moving. However, in order to properly examine the cells, image analysis is also required. Because of this, there are dual specialists working in the lab: biologists as well as image analysts.  

– Once you have movies or images showing the cell movements you can study them, but very often we need more information, to quantify the speed of migration or something similar. Doing those types of analyses by hand is quite inefficient which is why we work with software engineers. There are both biologists and image analysts in the lab, but also those in between, biologists who can both analyse the images and modify the software, Jacquemet says. 

A lot of the tools and software used in the lab end up applying to other projects as well. Jacquemet’s team have a lot of research collaborations, both in Finland and in Europe. A few are local, but most are international. Advances in the field of bioimaging and the technology related to it are rapidly being made, especially concerning the microscopes. New development in computer vison software is also helping Jacquemet and his colleagues get more information from the images.  

– Technologically it is moving forward very quickly, which is amazing because it allows us to be at the forefront of the field, Jacquemet says. 



Åbo Akademi University has four strategic research profiles, one of which is Solutions for Health. The profile combines a range of interdisciplinary research areas and works with developing solutions for health spanning from molecules to mind, i.e. from molecular and cellular level to psychological wellbeing.  

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