Understanding cell organisation to tackle cancer

Scientists at The University of Manchester have identified how cells know which way up they need to be. The discovery could help in the fight against cancer because in the early stages of the disease the cells become disorganised.

Professor Charles Streuli and Dr Nasreen Akhtar of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research have conducted new research that leads to a better understanding of cell polarity. Properly organised tissues are vital to maintaining functional organs and a healthy body.

Part of being organised includes cells being in the correct position within the tissue and the right way up, because the top and bottom of cells have different functions.

The extracellular matrix (ECM) is a layer of protein rich material that surrounds tissues and helps to design and shape all of our organs. Previous studies have demonstrated that the ECM sticks to the cells and guides them into the right position. What hadn't been identified is how the ECM communicates that message. 

To understand this better Professor Streuli and Dr Akhtar looked at epithelial cells, which make up the majority of tissues within the body. They studied epithelial cells of the breast, which make milk. These cells also form the linings of mammary ducts to carry milk towards the nipple.

It's vital that these cells are organised correctly in order to make milk accessible for the baby. One of the first signs of cancer is that the epithelial cells become disorganised.