A new way to capture cancer cells’ symphony

Xin Tang, Ph.D., and Jonathan Licht, M.D.

A team of UF researchers has shed new light on the functional mechanisms of spontaneous calcium waves in human colon and prostate cancer cells. The study, published Oct. 5 in the journal Biomaterials (impact factor: 15.4), indicated that calcium dynamics enable long-distance functional communication in electrically non-excitable cancer cells. The findings could contribute to the development of innovative therapies for tumor suppression.

The team, led by senior authors Xin Tang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of mechanical & aerospace engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and a member of the UF Health Cancer Center, and Bo Zeng, Ph. D., professor at the Institute of Cardiovascular Research at Southwest Medical University in China, used fluorescent imaging of the genetically encoded calcium indicators in human colon, prostate and lung cancer cells.

The team showed that spontaneous calcium transients and intercellular waves occur frequently in cancer cells in vitro and ex vivo. Using xenograft models, the researchers showed that the calcium signals promoted tumor growth in mice.

Calcium signaling is a key part of every aspect of cellular function across eukaryotes and has an important role in cancer progression and metastasis. The team discovered that during tumor growth, elevated calcium concentration in cells leads to uncontrolled cancer cell production.

This research fills in important gaps in knowledge of how calcium signals are involved in cancer, the researchers said. Spontaneous intercellular calcium waves had not been previously identified and studied in non-excitable tumor cells from organs other than the brain and heart, the team noted.

Top row from left: Bo Zeng, Ph.D., Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., and Shu Wang, Ph.D. Bottom row from left: Chenyu Liang, Mai Tanaka, Ph.D., and Sharon Lepler.

Other coauthors from the Cancer Center were Shu Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of biostatistics in the College of Public Health & Health Professions, and Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., professor in the department of radiation oncology in the College of Medicine and associate director for education and training at the Cancer Center.

This project was supported by a Pilot Award from the UF Health Cancer Center (to Tang and Siemann), the UF Research Opportunity Seed Fund (to Tang), the University Scholar Program (to Tang), and the Gatorade Award (to Tang).

The team acknowledged the invaluable support of numerous collaborators across several UF departments:

  • Jonathan Licht, M.D., director of the Cancer Center
  • Lizi Wu, Ph.D., professor in the department of molecular genetics & microbiology in the College of Medicine and co-leader of the Mechanisms of Oncogenesis research program at the Cancer Center
  • Rolf Renne, Ph. D., professor in the department of molecular genetics & microbiology in the College of Medicine and associate director for basic sciences at the Cancer Center
  • Christian Jobin, Ph.D., Gatorade Trust Professor of Medicine in the department of medicine, division of gastroenterology, hepatology & nutrition, in the College of Medicine and co-leader of the Cancer Therapeutics & Host Response research program at the Cancer Center
  • Maria Zajac-Kaye, Ph.D., professor and interim chair in the department of anatomy & cell biology in the College of Medicine
  • Hendrik Luesch, Ph.D., professor and Debbie and Sylvia DeSantis Chair In Natural Products Drug Discovery and Development in the department of medicinal chemistry in the College of Pharmacy
  • Thomas George, M.D., FACP, professor in the department of medicine, division of hematology and oncology, in the College of Medicine
  • Blanka Sharma, Ph. D., associate professor and J. Crayton Pruitt Family Term Fellow in the department of biomedical engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering
  • Edward Phelps, Ph. D., assistant professor and J. Crayton Pruitt Family Term Fellow in the department of biomedical engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering
  • Christopher Vulpe, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the department of physiological sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Warren Dixon, Ph.D., Dean’s Leadership Professor and chair in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering
  • David Hahn, Ph.D., Craig M. Berge Dean in the College of Engineering, University of Arizona

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