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Real-time and non-invasive measurements of cell mechanical behaviour with optical coherence phase microscopy

Kirsty RossOct 02, 2018 Publications

Lay summary

A new paper by Dawn Gillies (OPTIMA 2015) and colleagues was recently published on the use of hydrostatic pressure to monitor how 'squishy' cancer cells are compared with non-cancerous cells.

This was the inspiration for the Squishy Cancer public engagement with research project, piloted for the first time at the Botanic Gardens @ EXPLORATHON 2018. More information can be found here and here.

Felt models of cancerous and non-cancerous cells. Cell types include pancreatic, breast and fibroblast cells.


  • A new method to monitor the mechanical behaviour of cells is described.
  • Measurements are made in real-time and non-destructively.
  • The response of cells to hydrostatic pressure has been measured.
  • Intracellular displacements were recorded at the nanoscale.


Cell mechanical behaviour is increasingly recognised as a central biophysical parameter in cancer and stem cell research, and methods of investigating their mechanical behaviour are therefore needed.

We have developed a novel qualitative method based on quantitative phase imaging which is capable of investigating cell mechanical behaviour in real-time at cellular resolution using optical coherence phase microscopy (OCPM), and stimulating the cells non-invasively using hydrostatic pressure. The method was exemplified to distinguish between cells with distinct mechanical properties, and transient change induced by Cytochalasin D.

We showed the potential of quantitative phase imaging to detect nanoscale intracellular displacement induced by varying hydrostatic pressure in microfluidic channels, reflecting cell mechanical behaviour. Further physical modelling is required to yield quantitative mechanical properties.

I need to know more!

To read more about this exciting project, you can view the paper in full here (log in required): Gillies et al 2018.

You can also watch a video of these results being presented at the SPIE BiOS 2017 in California (pay walled): Conference proceedings