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Nanomechanical analysis of cells from cancer patients


Change in cell stiffness is a new characteristic of cancer cells that affects the way they spread1,2. Despite several studies on architectural changes in cultured cell lines1,3, no ex vivo mechanical analyses of cancer cells obtained from patients have been reported. Using atomic force microscopy, we report the stiffness of live metastatic cancer cells taken from the body (pleural) fluids of patients with suspected lung, breast and pancreas cancer. Within the same sample, we find that the cell stiffness of metastatic cancer cells is more than 70% softer, with a standard deviation over five times narrower, than the benign cells that line the body cavity. Different cancer types were found to display a common stiffness. Our work shows that mechanical analysis can distinguish cancerous cells from normal ones even when they show similar shapes. These results show that nanomechanical analysis correlates well with immunohistochemical testing currently used for detecting cancer.

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Figure 1: Optical and fluorescence images of a cytological sample.
Figure 2: Histograms of the associated Young's modulus E for cytological samples collected from patients with suspected metastatic cancer.


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S.E.C. and J.K.G. acknowledge partial support from National Institutes of Health research grant no. 5 R21 GM074509 and from the Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration University Research Engineering Technology Institute. J.R. and Y.J. acknowledge partial support from National Institutes of Health research grant no. U01CA96116 and Alper grant, Johnsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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S.E.C., Y.J., J.R. and J.K.G. contributed equally to this work.

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Correspondence to Jianyu Rao or James K. Gimzewski.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary discussion, supplementary table S1 and supplementary figure S1 (PDF 2437 kb)

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Cross, S., Jin, YS., Rao, J. et al. Nanomechanical analysis of cells from cancer patients. Nature Nanotech 2, 780–783 (2007).

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