The behaviour of water in cancer cells: how material science can be used in cancer research

An image to illustrate the study of water in cancer cells using a materials science method
© iStock/vitanovski

A new study on the behaviour of water in cancer cells suggests that materials science methods could be used in cancer research.

The researchers Murillo Longo Martins and Heloisa N. Bordallo at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, has shown that using advanced materials science methods in materials analysis can be used to observe water properties in breast cancer cells.

The methods are:

  • Neuron scattering; and
  • Thermal analysis.
Illustration of the two perspectives: The biological to the left, focusing on the biological elements, organelles, membranes, genes and proteins and the materials science study to the right, where Hydrogen atoms and the properties of water are dominant. The combination of both provides opportunities for developing new, dedicated treatments.

The significance of how water behaves in cancer cells

According to the Niels Bohr Institute: “Water being the main component in the composition of the cell, understanding its properties, when undergoing treatment for cancer, is vital. Cancer cells respond differently to different kinds of treatment, so a new unorthodox analysis, using techniques from materials sciences, of the cell’s main component, its composition and behaviour, could be a common denominator in developing new treatments for individual patients.”

The properties of intra cellular water are altered by chemotherapy drugs.

The authors wrote: “Water mobility in cancer cells could be a powerful parameter to predict the progression or remission of tumours.”

Observing the effects of a cancer drug

The study helped to illustrate the role played by water dynamics in breast cancer cells (MCF-7) after treatment with a chemotherapy drug.

“By thermal analyses, the cells were probed as micrometric reservoirs of bulk-like and confined water populations” the researchers explained. “Under this perspective, we showed that the drug clearly alters the properties of the confined water.”

The Niels Bohr Institute concludes: “This result is expected to stimulate future collaborations between distinct scientific communities, and further incentivize the use of materials-science approaches when investigating biological matter.”

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