The Good (and the Bad) of Plasticity in Cell Movement


Cells make up every piece of your body. And those cells are not static — they move, pretty much all the time.

But when it comes to how they move, scientists have been a bit confounded over the years. There are a variety of methods of movement, but what drives those movements and why, isn’t 100 percent known.

Ryan Petrie, PhD, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel, reviewed recent research into cell motility — movement — and helped parse what we do know and what we should be trying to find out next.

Here are some important points about cell movement research and why it could affect you, shared by Petrie.

  • Cell movement has mostly been studied in two-dimensional ways, and three-dimensional study is a relatively new frontier.

“The best place to study mammalian cells would be in the tissues of a living animal,” Petrie said. “Unfortunately, it is challenging, technically, to image cells and their intracellular machinery in this in vivo context.”

Traditionally, cell migration has been studied in 2-D tissue cultures because it’s easy to see cells and they migrate relatively easily. But the introduction of in vitro models of 3-D matrices, which better represent how cells really move in living tissue, and live cell fluorescent imaging has effectively cut out the middle man — the animal.

“This was instrumental in the discovery of plasticity — how an organism can adapt and change as a result of changes in its environment — in cell migration,” Petrie said.

  • The discovery that cells have plasticity has some pretty positive implications.

“Plasticity is inherent to normal human skin cells, fibroblasts,” Petrie said. “While we do not yet know how this plasticity contributes to human health, we speculate it will be important during the wound-healing response when fibroblasts have to migrate through the extracellular matrix to the wound site.”

  • But cell plasticity can also work pretty significantly against us.

“Plasticity in single cell migration mechanisms was discovered in metastatic tumor cells,” Petrie explained.

Unfortunately, metastatic tumor cells are the kind that move from the place where cancer originates in the body. When cancer moves, it becomes harder to stop and, sometimes, track.

And with the knowledge that these cells benefit from plasticity, scientists know that the ability of these dangerous cells to invade different parts of the body is that much greater.

  • Further research could help us turn plasticity against those tumor cells.

“My immediate research goal is to determine if the migration mechanisms and plasticity found in normal cells are distinct from those used by tumor cells,” Petrie said.

If certain bad cells are found to move one way and the good cells move in another, it could greatly affect how we treat cancer.

“This type of information could help us identify drug targets to block tumor cell movement without affecting the migration of normal, healthy cells, such as fibroblasts,” Petrie explained.

To check out Petrie’s full study, “Multiple Mechanisms of 3D Migration: The Origins of Plasticity,” you can go to ScienceDirect here.

Media who wish to speak with Petrie can contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or

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