A new study reveals the secrets of mucus production that could be applied to cancer biology

The cells that produce mucus are known to be involved in serious health conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), ulcerative colitis, and even cancer. However, the origins of these cells have eluded scientists for years.

Interleukin 13

Image Credit: Juan Gaertner/Shutterstock.com

Now, in a new study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh researchers have determined the tissue mechanics drive the regeneration of these cells, which will have huge implications on the future treatment of related illnesses.

The vital role of mucus in promoting health

Published this week in the journal Nature Communications, the paper sees the Pittsburgh team describing how they were able to detail the tissue mechanism underlying goblet cell regeneration (the cells involved in mucus production) on the surface of frog embryonic organoids.

Mucus production is incredibly important for maintaining human health. The goblet cells are responsible for generating this protective secretion within the organs of the digestive, respiratory, and reproductive systems.

Mucus is vital to numerous health processes, such as preventing stomach acid from damaging the stomach lining or filtering the air we breathe by preventing dust and bacteria from entering the lungs.

It is the bodys initial defense from harmful substances introduced by the outside environment. So, unsurprisingly, when something goes wrong with mucus production, it can lead to poor health. Overproduction of mucus is related to illnesses such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and ulcerative colitis, and too little is sometimes produced as a result of infection or injury, or cancer.

Therefore, scientists have long strived to uncover the origins of goblet cells to figure out how to exploit the processes that regenerate them, helping to develop systems to recalibrate the imbalances seen in illness.

Studying the underlying mechanics of mucus production

Finally, scientists have made a breakthrough in their exploration of the origins of goblet cells. Bioengineers based at the University of Pittsburgh have identified a type of goblet cell regeneration that is easily accessible and occurs rapidly.

The team looked specifically at the Xenopus tadpole, which respires through its skin, working similarly to the human lung. The surface of the frogs skin is a mucociliated epithelium, a tissue made up of goblet cells and ciliated cells.

The team used frog embryonic organoids, which are similar in evolutionary terms to the Xenopus tadpole, to investigate the tissue mechanics that underly the growth of goblet cells and tissue formation.

Mesenchymal cells were extracted from the embryos and formed into a spherical aggregate, changes in the cells were observed after just a few hours, changes that would not have occurred had they been in the embryo.

The team observed a type of regeneration that seems to function to restore the mucociliated epithelium of mesenchymal cells. Following this, they began to investigate the microenvironmental cues that could be initiating the cells to change into a new shape.

The mechanical microenvironment was altered with special tools, leading the scientists to find that making the environment softer prevented the cells from changing. This finding is important as it demonstrates that mechanics can incite significant cell changes without the addition of another factor.

Findings could help cancer research

The study of frog embryos was considered a fast and cost-effective technique for investigating the vital genetic and biomechanics factors that allow for the goblet cells to respond to mechanical cues.

Given that the team believes the findings are not one enlightening about how mucus production works in frogs, but that it is indicative of how human mucus production works, it is believed that their findings will be able to be applied to cancer biology.

The next step will be to explore how the mechanics that influence cells may play a role in disease. Questions have arisen surrounding whether or not particular cancer types might be impacted by the stiffness or softness of the mechanical microenvironment.


EurekAlert!. (2020). Got slime? Using regenerative biology to restore mucus production. [online] Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-01/uop-gsu012920.php [Accessed 31 Jan. 2020].

Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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