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Scientists Hear Cell Conversation for First Time


Friday 11 December 2009


A cutting edge technique that allows scientists to monitor communication between cells could transform the way laboratory medical experiments are conducted.


The method is likely to make laboratory studies of cancers and other human diseases, and assessment of new drugs to target them, more accurate.


The study was completed by Dr Rune Linding, head of the Cellular and Molecular Logic Team at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in the UK, along with UK and Canadian-based colleagues. The research is published in the latest edition of the journal Science.


Dr Linding says that understanding communication between cells is crucial, as many cancers and other diseases are caused by a breakdown in communications systems.


“Organs and tissues are composed of many different cell types with distinct roles to play,” Dr Linding says. “To function properly, the cells must communicate with each other, which they do through a network of specialised proteins known as signalling molecules. When cells are unable to send or receive the correct signals, they can behave abnormally and this can lead to disease.”


Until now, scientists have generally studied cell communication by taking a single population of cells, adding a molecule to stimulate the cells and measuring the level of signalling molecules produced. But this technique does not take into account that cells respond to the signals they receive and feedback to each other, like a conversation between people.


“In our latest study, we have developed a way to more accurately replicate what’s happening in the body – before scientists could only hear a monologue, but now for the first time we can assess the outcome of a conversation,” Dr Linding says.


The new method involves growing cells in media containing labelled amino acids (the fundamental building blocks of proteins) that are incorporated into the cells’ proteins. Two cell types, grown with different labels, are then combined for a short time to allow them to talk to each other, and then the cells are broken open so the proteins produced can be examined. A technique called mass spectrometry is then used to measure the level of each label, showing from which cell type the proteins originated.


The team then looked for genes that were involved in the conversation. They tested about 10 per cent of all human genes by blocking them within the cells one by one, using small interfering RNA molecules, and measured whether the cells behaved differently. Information about the proteins and genes was used to make a computer model of the signalling networks involved – effectively highlighting the important points in the conversation.


The research team first used this technique to study a key communications system known as EphB2, which is used to position cells precisely within the body and is important for maintaining boundaries between tissues. Cancer cells need to cross tissue boundaries to spread throughout the body, so a mutation in this system can promote metastasis.


Co-author Dr Claus Jørgensen from The Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Canada says: “Many types of cancers – including colorectal cancer, lung, prostate and breast cancer and glioma – have an abnormality in the Eph communications system, and it may also play a role in other diseases. However, until now it has not been possible to study this network during cell-to-cell contact, the most crucial time”.


 “Our study identified several new molecules involved in this system, knowledge that may play a role in future network biology-based drug development at the ICR. Perhaps most importantly, we found that the two cell types we studied responded differently to the conversation, which shows that previous experiments on just one cell type could well be inaccurate. This means that if you want to measure how cells will respond to signals – including signals that trigger cancer, or signals from drugs – you need to look at how they will respond when they are with other cell populations, not just one cell type alone.”


Co-author Dr Tony Pawson, also from The Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, says: “This technique, which lets us consider two cell populations at once, is a major step towards more accurate laboratory research. We will adopt this approach to study how distinct cell populations talk to one another in diseases like cancer; the next stage is to find a way to take even more cell types and molecules into account. We can’t mimic what goes on in the body yet, but we are getting closer.”


Funding for this project came from the ICR, the Medical Research Council, Genome Canada through the Ontario Genomics Institute, a Terry Fox Programme grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Human Frontiers Science Program and The Lundbeck Foundation.



Media Contact: Science Press Officer Jane Bunce or 0207 153 5106 or after hours 077217 47900


Note to editors:

  • The cells studied expressed either the EphB2 receptor or the corresponding ehrinB1 ligand.
  • Cell-Specific Information Processing in Segregating Populations of Eph Receptor Ephrin–Expressing Cells” was published in Science on December 11 


The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

  • The ICR is Europe’s leading cancer research centre
  • The ICR has been ranked the UK’s top academic research centre, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise
  • The ICR works closely with partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to ensure patients immediately benefit from new research. Together the two organisations form the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe
  • The ICR has charitable status and relies on voluntary income, spending 95 pence in every pound of total income directly on research
  • As a college of the University of London, the ICR also provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction
  • Over its 100-year history, the ICR’s achievements include identifying the potential link between smoking and lung cancer which was subsequently confirmed, discovering that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer and isolating more cancer-related genes than any other organisation in the world

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The Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital

The Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, a University of Toronto affiliated research centre established in 1985, is one of the world's premier centres in biomedical research. Thirty-four principal investigators lead research in diabetes, cancer biology, epidemiology, stem cell research, women's and infants' health, neurobiology and systems biology. For more information on the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, please visit

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