The moving cell conundrum

By Varshini Kamaraj

In addition to hosting speakers from all over the country, the UW-Madison Mechanics Seminar also provides a platform for graduate students to share their research. Aashrith Saraswathibhatla, a PhD student in the Engineering Mechanics program, presented his research on “Force Adhesion and Cell Monolayer” on October 13, 2017.

Saraswathibhatla is a member of Professor Jacob Notbohm’s lab. The lab studies the mechanics of interactions between cells, which can be described as the building blocks of an organism. By observing cell behavior from a mechanical perspective, Notbohm and his students provide insight into biological processes like wound healing and cancer cell behavior.

Saraswathibhatla researches the collective motion of cells within monolayers. The term monolayer is used to describe a single sheet of closely packed cells. The function of these monolayers depends on where they are located in the body. For example, monolayers on the surface of the skin would move to close a cut on the skin’s surface, which aids in wound healing. Monolayers in the interior section of the skin typically act as filters, allowing only passage of safe substances into the body.

Saraswathibhatla’s current work has helped in understanding the cell behavior that controls the process of wound healing. He explains “We want to know how they collectively migrate, is it just that a single cell is pulling all the cells, or are all these cells interacting with each other and collectively going forward.” For instance, an insufficient healing process in the stomach could lead to ulcers, while an excessive healing process could lead excessive tissue formation, which is a condition called fibrosis. Thus, experimentally observing how these cells behave and developing models to analyze them could aid in speeding things up or slowing things down when necessary.

Moving forward, Saraswathibhatla and the Notbohm lab group hope to understand these monolayer behaviors in relation to cancer metastasis. “Collective monolayers also show this kind of phase transformation, sometimes they behave in a liquid-like phase and sometimes in a solid-like phase. We’re now trying to use experimental techniques to understand this behavior. If you think of cancer, primary cancer cells stick together in a solid-like state, once they transform into a liquid state, cancer begins to spread or in other words, the cancer metastasizes.”