New J. Phys. 13, 115013 (2011)

The proliferation of microstructures throughout a tumour is a tell-tale sign of malignancy. However, the physical origin of these structures remains unknown, despite their prevalence in current techniques for skin-cancer diagnosis. By analysing the dynamics of binary mixtures, Clément Chatelain and colleagues have shown that model tumours are capable of undergoing a spinodal decomposition, which heralds the emergence of microstructure patterns.

Credit: © 2011 IOP

The model cells begin to segregate as soon as a particular type of adhesion between tumour cells reaches a critical value. But it's their access to nutrients that holds the key to stable phase separation. It imposes two key length scales on the system: one encoding the extent to which nutrients can penetrate the cell mass, and the other resulting from the dynamics of cell proliferation, which are controlled by the local nutrient concentration. The existence of the second length scale has the effect of stabilizing the microstructures, for which the model predicts a typical size, commensurate with that observed clinically.