A new discovery about how cells move inside the body may provide scientists with crucial information about disease mechanisms such as the spread of cancer or the constriction of airways caused by asthma. Led by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), investigators found that epithelial cells — the type that form a barrier between the inside and the outside of the body, such as skin cells — move in a group, propelled by forces both from within and from nearby cells, to fill any unfilled spaces they encounter.

The study appears June 23 in an advance online edition of Nature Materials.

“We were trying to understand the basic relationship between collective cellular motions and collective cellular forces, as might occur during cancer cell invasion, for example. But in doing so we stumbled onto a phenomenon that was totally unexpected,” said senior author Jeffrey Fredberg, professor of bioengineering and physiology in the HSPH Department of Environmental Health and co-senior investigator of HSPH’s Molecular and Integrative Cellular Dynamics lab.

Biologists, engineers, and physicists from HSPH and IBEC worked together to shed light on collective cellular motion because it plays a key role in functions such as wound healing, organ development, and tumor growth. Using a technique called monolayer stress microscopy — which they invented themselves — they measured the forces affecting a single layer of moving epithelial cells.

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