A team of University of Iowa researchers has made a “surprising” discovery about cancer cells: they are likely to be tougher than the other cells moving through the blood stream. Michael Henry, a professor in the university’s College of Medicine, is the lead author of the study.

“For many years people have more or less assumed that these (cancer) cells would be very fragile and not able to withstand very high levels of fluid shear stress,” Henry says. “We found that, in fact, although normal cells are fragile and susceptible, the cancer cells exhibit a resistance.”

Just like “wind shear” on a plane or a vehicle speeding down the highway, cells in the human body are exposed to “fluid shear” in the blood stream. Henry says exposure to that kind of “shear stress” seemed to induce a “hardiness” in cancer cells.

“What we’ve done so far is work with laboratory-based models. We still need to move our discovery into the clinic and look at real, circulating cancer cells in patients to see if our findings hold,” Henry says. “But what we’ve found so far would suggest that is going to be the case.”

This discovery eventually could lead to a blood test that would measure dangerous the cancer might be.

“In addition to knowing whether the cancer is going to be dangerous or not, we might be able to take cells out of a patient and very rapidly measure whether they are sensitive or resistant to potential drug therapies without having to look at all of the genes in the cancer,” Henry says.

The research findings were just published in a medical journal and Henry has applied for another grant, specifically to measure cancer cells in melanoma patients.