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MECHANO-CONTROL, a European consortium to reveal the secrets of cellular mechanics

The European Union, through the Horizon 2020 FET Proactive program, has provided financial support in the amount of 7 million euros to the MECHANO-CONTROL project, led by the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). “The strength or stiffness of tissues plays an important role in the development of certain types of cancer, curing of wounds and embryonic development,” states project leader Dr. Pere Roca-Cusachs. As the IBEC researcher tells Biocores, MECHANO-CONTROL “is about understanding and making use of mechanical interactions within biological tissues.”

The consortium is made up of scientists from Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, from both academic institutions and private industry. The project seeks to promote the various biomechanical techniques, such as AFM microscopy, methods intrinsic to molecular biology, the mechanics of individual molecules or individual-based computational modeling, with the aim of understanding how cells transmit and detect mechanical forces.

Cellular mechanics, between medicine and biomaterials

According to remarks made by Roca-Cusach to Biocores, scientists from the King’s College of London will use atomic force spectroscopy to decode the mechanical properties of individual molecules. This way, MECHANO-CONTROL researchers hope to find out how they respond, or how mechanical forces affect stability in signal transduction processes. Additionally, IBEC scientists will use atomic force microscopy to better understand the mechanics of tissues and cells, and other techniques such as optic tweezers to apply stretch to cells.

The scientific community has demonstrated how solid tumors are capable of altering their mechanical properties, becoming stiffer than healthy tissue, which influences in the progression of cancer and the development of metastasis. Understanding changes in mechanical forces of cells and tissues is key to developing new oncological treatments, as was also described in a recent article by the IBEC published in Nature Cell Biology. The group, directed by Dr. Xavier Trepat, identified the interaction of two proteins, E-cadherin and N-cadherin, that allow cancer cells to use the physical force of benign cells in their favor, thus migrating from the tumors and promoting metastasis.

Pere Roca-Cusachs, MECHANO-CONTROL leader. Source: IBEC/PCB

This research is just one example of the potential in the comprehension of biomechanical forces to understand physiological processes and learn more about disease development. For example, the Dutch researchers participating in MECHANO-CONTROL will use compatible high resolution microscopy inside live animals, and will implant organoid cultures to reproduce the three-dimensional structures observed in tissues, with a view to applying biomechanics to advance breast cancer knowledge. On another front, scientists from the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC) working in the consortium will also develop computational models to simulate the interactions between cells, and inside tissues.

The MECHANO-CONTROL project is also participated in by researchers from the Leibniz-Institut, located in Germany, who work with a chemical synthesis technique to control ligands with light. This way, they can use light pulses to modulate the ligands, making them receptors, or rendering them inert. Several companies are also members of the European consortium, such as Catalan outfit Mind the Byte, headquartered in the Science Park of Barcelona, or the Dutch concern Noviocell B.V. Through the multidisciplinary work of MECHANO-CONTROL, scientists aim to understand and control cellular mechanics from a molecular level up to the scale of complex organisms. The consortium is already working, and has organized scientific meetings to coordinate its activities, all of which are oriented toward uncovering the secrets of biomechanics and advancing in the design of new biomaterials or the development of new therapeutic approaches to cancer and other pathologies, such as fibrosis.