Civil and Environmental Engineering

Reverse Engineering Embryogenesis and Cancer

By Nicolas Huguet, CBB Biographer
July 25, 2015

More than 20 years ago CBB member Prof. Wayne Brodland was approached by a biologist who was studying the forces that drove early embryo development. He was so interested in this topic that he decided to make it the main focus of his research. Over the years, he and his team have developed advanced techniques to investigate cellular interactions and have made significant contributions to the understanding of cell movements.

One of these key techniques is finite element modelling. It involves constructing a virtual world that mimics the properties of the real world. They validated this virtual model while studying a human birth defect called spina bifida that occurs during neurulation, the process by which the spinal cord and brain form. Spina bifida occurs when part of the spinal tube doesn’t close properly. Their computer model connected gene expression patterns to the structural components they regulate, the forces that they exert through these components, the resulting cell and tissue interactions and the medical outcomes that result. Their findings matched a wide range of experiments. Another important technique they developed is called CellFIT, and it allows the forces at work in cells to be inferred from their geometries.

The current focus of Prof. Brodland and his team is the mechanics of cancer metastases. Most cancer deaths occur because cells leave the primary tumor and set up secondary cancer sites. At that point, all that is available is radiation, chemotherapy or palliative care. If it were possible to stop the cells from leaving the primary tumor then most cancers could be treated relatively easily with surgery. Prof. Brodland and his team are working with Andrew Ewald from John Hopkins University on this project. Dr. Ewald provides them with images of the cells in primary cancer sites, and they apply their techniques to study the movements of these metastasizing cells and the conditions under which they leave. Their goal is to identify pharmacological or other means to arrest metastasis.

[Contact Information]

Affiliation: 
University of Waterloo

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