Head in the Game: Using Cancer Cells to Study Neural Development

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neurons clustered

This image, submitted by Russell McConnell in the Gertler Lab at the Koch Institute, shows neurons from a brain tumor.

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neurons clustered

Russell McConnell, Frank Gertler
Koch Institute at MIT

Rapid growth and the ability to divide indefinitely make cancer cells a unique tool in fundamental biology research. In this experiment, cells derived from a brain tumor grow on a soft, flexible material that mimics the mechanical environment of the brain and spine. 

Under these conditions, the axons do not branch, but instead form extensive, thread-like structures well suited for long-range connections between cells. Researchers continue to study how mechanical signals affect the shape and dynamic behavior of neurons during development and injury repair.