Integrated roles of mechanics, motility, and disease progression in cancer
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The broad objective of this research is to examine the relationship between the cellular micromechanical environment and disease progression in cancer. The mechanical stiffness of cancerous tissue is a key feature that distinguishes it from normal tissue and thus facilitates its detection clinically. While numerous inroads have been achieved toward elucidating molecular mechanisms that underlie diseases such as cancer, quantitative characterization of associated cellular mechanical properties and biophysical attributes remains largely incomplete. To this end, the present research provides insight into the following questions: (1) What is the effect of extracellular matrix (ECM) stiffness and architecture on internal cancer cell rheology and cytoskeletal organization? (2) What are the integrated effects of ECM stiffness and cell metastatic potential on the intracellular rheology and morphology of breast cancer cells? (3) What are the integrated effects of ECM stiffness, ECM architecture, and cell metastatic potential on the motility of breast cancer cells? To examine these phenomena, the present research utilizes a multidisciplinary engineering approach that integrates experimental rheology, theoretical mechanics, confocal microscopy, computational algorithms, and experimental cell biology. Briefly, genetically altered cancer-mimicking cells are cultured within synthetic ECMs of varying mechanical stiffness and structure, where they are then observed using time-lapsed confocal microscopy. Image analyses and computational algorithms are then employed to extract measures of cell migration speed and intracellular stiffness via particle-tracking microrheology techniques. Major results show that ECM stiffness elicits an intracellular mechanical response only within the framework of physiologically relevant matrix environments and that a key cell-matrix attachment protein (the integrin) plays an essential role in this phenomenon. Additional results indicate that a well-known breast cancer-associated biomarker (ErbB2) is responsible for sensitizing mammary cells to ECM stiffness. Finally, results also show that a switch in ECM architecture significantly hinders the migratory capacity of ErbB2-associated cells, which may explain why the ErbB2 biomarker is detected with much higher frequency in early stage breast cancer than in later stage invasive and metastatic cancers. In total, these findings inform the fields of mechanobiology and cancer biology by systematically linking cell rheology, cell motility, matrix mechanics, and disease progression in cancer.