Finding effective solutions to fight cancer is undoubtedly one of the main scientific challenges worldwide, whose success needs necessarily to build on innovative pathways of research. Mechano-Control aims to understand the physical forces that determine the spread of a wide range of diseases, with potentially vast impact on the development of new therapies.
Mechano-control is a Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Proactive project, now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot. It started in 2017 and is running until 2021, building on the synergy of a multidisciplinary consortium, with partners from Spain, Germany, UK and The Netherlands.
We interviewed Pere Roca-Cusachs, coordinator of the project, from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia.
Pere, what is the project about?
The Mechano-Control project aims to come up with new therapeutic or diagnostic approaches for cancer and other diseases, focusing on the mechanical control of biological function. We aim to understand and control how cells transmit and detect mechanical forces.
The human body is constantly affected by physical forces; when you cut yourself, cells in the surrounding tissue apply forces to heal the damaged area. In the same way, cancer cells apply forces to spread to other parts of the body. Mechanical forces and the stiffness of our tissues are strongly affected in cancer. These forces are detected through specific molecular bonds at the nanoscale, leading to effects in cells, tissues, and finally organs and organisms. To understand these mechanical forces, we need to look at them under many different scales, from molecules to organs, and all the way up to entire organisms.
Understanding how these forces work would allow us to unlock new avenues in cancer research, regenerative medicine and the design of biomaterials to be implanted in the body. Ultimately, Mechano-Control will focus on breast cancer. If we can understand cancer biomechanics from the single molecule to the whole organ scale, we will be able to control mechanical forces to restore healthy cell behaviour and inhibit cancer progression.
What is the main expected outcome of the project?
The general objective of this project is to develop a hierarchical scientific understanding and technological toolset for the control of cellular adhesion and mechanics, with the capacity to predict and drive tissue and organ integrity based on the individual and collective properties of adhesive molecular bonds. The applicability of this novel technological approach and the obtained scientific base will be demonstrated in mammary gland development and breast cancer.
Our targeted breakthrough is to build a body of knowledge and technology that encompasses biomechanics from the single molecule to the whole organ scale and to show how it can be harnessed to control biological function in general, and breast cancer in particular.
What is the expected impact on the research community/scientific field it addresses?
The project will build both the scientific foundation and a technological toolset to understand how adhesion and mechanics determine molecular, cellular, tissue, and organ function. This will include scientific knowledge, experimental and computational technologies spanning from the molecule to the organism. Due to this hierarchical, multi-scale approach to understand and control tissue and organ behaviour, we aim to provide a rigorous, mechanistic and technologic baseline for tissue mechanics and cohesiveness with the potential to control and predict the outcome of any morphogenetic process. Whereas we will specifically focus on breast cancer as a proof-of-concept, our approach entails a vast and uncharted potential applicable to a wide range of biomedical scenarios such as oncology, regenerative therapies and biomaterials.
What is the expected impact on society?
The expected impact on society will not only apply to cancer and breast cancer in particular, but to other diseases that are also driven by increased stiffness, such as fibrosis, and other biological processes and diseases. Most solid cancers have altered mechanical properties, such as a stiffness higher than that of normal tissue. This increased stiffness promotes cancer progression. If we can understand and control this process, there may be a huge potential for new therapies across a wide range of diseases. Understanding cellular mechanics and their effects is also crucial for the design of biomaterials and for regenerative medicine.
The project is also engaged in the training of future researchers; for example, last September Mechano-Control consortium held a summer school addressing PhD’s and Postdocs to develop academic training actions to build up a body of experts in mechanobiology.
The project also aims to share knowledge and research progresses to society. Project results are periodically reported to the general public through press releases, institutional documents, social media, posters, publications, videos… We are also promoting greater public engagement and dialogue to involve citizens and civil society organisations in research and science policy. Consortium members participate in dissemination activities mainly by giving talks to the non-scientific community, patient associations, and children in schools.
What has been your experience with FET and what was the impact of this experience on your professional career?
Applying for a FET project makes you think really big, as the scale and ambition proposed have to be major for the project to get funded. We came up with a really outstanding and powerful consortium to do this, and I was absolutely thrilled when we obtained the funding. This FET project is currently the main source of funding in our lab, and it has meant a huge leap in the capacity of my group to tackle ambitious, meaningful science. Obtaining and running this project has been for sure one of the key moments of my career.