Cancer and Metastasis Reviews

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 113-127

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Mechanics, malignancy, and metastasis: The force journey of a tumor cell

  • Sanjay KumarAffiliated withDepartment of Bioengineering, University of California Email author 
  • , Valerie M. WeaverAffiliated withDepartment of Surgery and Center for Bioengineering and Tissue Regeneration, Department of Anatomy, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutics, Institute for Regeneration Medicine, University of California


A cell undergoes many genetic and epigenetic changes as it transitions to malignancy. Malignant transformation is also accompanied by a progressive loss of tissue homeostasis and perturbations in tissue architecture that ultimately culminates in tumor cell invasion into the parenchyma and metastasis to distant organ sites. Increasingly, cancer biologists have begun to recognize that a critical component of this transformation journey involves marked alterations in the mechanical phenotype of the cell and its surrounding microenvironment. These mechanical differences include modifications in cell and tissue structure, adaptive force-induced changes in the environment, altered processing of micromechanical cues encoded in the extracellular matrix (ECM), and cell-directed remodeling of the extracellular stroma. Here, we review critical steps in this “force journey,” including mechanical contributions to tissue dysplasia, invasion of the ECM, and metastasis. We discuss the biophysical basis of this force journey and present recent advances in the measurement of cellular mechanical properties in vitro and in vivo. We end by describing examples of molecular mechanisms through which tumor cells sense, process and respond to mechanical forces in their environment. While our understanding of the mechanical components of tumor growth, survival and motility remains in its infancy, considerable work has already yielded valuable insight into the molecular basis of force-dependent tumor pathophysiology, which offers new directions in cancer chemotherapeutics.


Cancer Extracellular matrix Cell mechanics Atomic force microscopy Subcellular laser ablation Rho kinase Focal adhesion kinase