A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen has discovered a fundamental mechanism in all cells that helps them explore their environment and even penetrate tissues.

This discovery could have an impact on cancer research, the treatment of neurological disorders and other diseases. Using “tentacles” similar to those of an octopus, the cell moves towards its target, the authors said.

The researchers observed this at the nanoscale with a microscope. According to them, the human immune cell pursues and then devours the bacterium.

The authors of the new work studied in more detail how cells use “tentacles”, they are also called filopodia. They help cells move around the human body.

The cell has no eyes or sense of smell, but has ultra-thin filopodia on its surface that resemble the tangled tentacles of an octopus. They help the cell move towards the bacterium and at the same time act as sensory tentacles that identify the bacterium as prey.

Paul Martin Bendix, Head of the Experimental Biophysics Laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute

The discovery is not that filopodia act as sensors – this is already well known. The authors of the new work found that filopodia can rotate and behave mechanically: this helps the cell move. For example, when a cancer cell invades new tissue.

Our work will help cancer researchers. Cancer cells are known for being highly invasive. Therefore, it can be concluded that they are very dependent on the effectiveness of their filopodia. If we find ways to suppress the filopodia of cancer cells, then the growth of cancer can be stopped.

Paul Martin Bendix, Head of the Experimental Biophysics Laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute

The mechanism discovered by the researchers exists in all living cells. Therefore, it is also important to study the work of filopodia in embryonic stem cells and brain cells, which are highly dependent on filopodia during development.