Sea squirt cells may help us understand cancer growth better.
The study found that delicate, threadlike protrusions used by cancer cells when they invade other tissues in the body could also help them escape control mechanisms supposed to eliminate them.
Studying embryos of the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis, the researchers in the University of Arizona, discovered that even non-invasive cells make the delicate, highly transient structures known as invadopodia.
The group found that future heart cells in the Ciona embryo use invadopodia to pick up chemical signals from their surroundings.
These so-called growth factors provide the cells with clues as to where they are in the developing embryo and what type of cell they are supposed to turn into.
The results suggest that this previously unknown role of invadopodia could also be at play in the case of cancer cells: Their invadopodia may serve to bind similar signalling molecules that protect them from the body's elimination processes, thereby ensuring their survival.
"These are special invasive protrusions and they are seen only in rare cell types and cancer cells," Bradley Davidson in the University of Arizona's department of molecular and cellular biology, who led the study, said.
"We are the first to see them in the developing Ciona embryo, and we certainly didn't expect to see them in that context," he added.
The findings were reported in Nature Cell Biology.