It’s more than just biology – cells have feelings too!


By LifETIME CDT Student: Lola Ajayi (University of Glasgow)

Our cells feel everything; cells respond to hormones, drugs, temperature, and a bunch of other stimuli. When it comes to cancer, cells are very sensitive to how soft or stiff the environment is around them. Depending on how stiff or soft and organised or disorganised proteins in the environment are cells will react in different ways; this is referred to as mechanosensing.


It can be very challenging to add in all these elements of the environment into a disease model, often something is compromised whether it is the mechanical aspect like stiffness or the biology like the presence of proteins that cell use to move and spread.

When creating models of cancer, the aim is to make something that relates as close to what happens in nature as possible but the is not as simple as it sounds. Natural materials are hard control and change whilst still keeping them ‘natural’ because of this, many models of disease use synthetic unharmful materials. By using synthetic materials, we can make the structures we want and the stiffness we want, the possibilities are endless! Now, here comes the big BUT. Cells in nature can change and reshape their environment, for many synthetic materials this is not possible or is very limited.

My work aims to engineer a model of breast cancer that is both natural and adjustable in stiffness and structural organisation. To do this I use the protein collagen, which is the most abundant protein in the body. By engineering breast cancer models like this, cells and proteins responsible for causing hard to treat breast cancer can be assessed and tracked. Having the ability to measure how and when cells reorganise the proteins and structures around them is a useful tool to better tackle aggressive breast cancer.