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Modeling force application configurations and morphologies required for cancer cell invasion

Abstract

We show that cell-applied, normal mechanical stresses are required for cells to penetrate into soft substrates, matching experimental observations in invasive cancer cells, while in-plane traction forces alone reproduce observations in non-cancer/noninvasive cells. Mechanobiological interactions of cells with their microenvironment drive migration and cancer invasion. We have previously shown that invasive cancer cells forcefully and rapidly push into impenetrable, physiological stiffness gels and indent them to cell-scale depths (up to 10 μm); normal, noninvasive cells indent at most to 0.7 μm. Significantly indenting cells signpost increased cancer invasiveness and higher metastatic risk in vitro and in vivo, as verified experimentally in different cancer types, yet the underlying cell-applied, force magnitudes and configurations required to produce the cell-scale gel indentations have yet to be evaluated. Hence, we have developed finite element models of forces applied onto soft, impenetrable gels using experimental cell/gel morphologies, gel mechanics, and force magnitudes. We show that in-plane traction forces can only induce small-scale indentations in soft gels (< 0.7 μm), matching experiments with various single, normal cells. Addition of a normal force (on the scale of experimental traction forces) produced cell-scale indentations that matched observations in invasive cancer cells. We note that normal stresses (force and area) determine the indentation depth, while contact area size and morphology have a minor effect, explaining the origin of experimentally observed cell morphologies. We have thus revealed controlling features facilitating invasive indentations by single cancer cells, which will allow application of our model to complex problems, such as multicellular systems.

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Acknowledgements

The work was partially funded by the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) Medical Devices Program (Grant no. 3-17427), by the Polak Fund for Applied Research, and by the Gerald O. Mann Foundation.

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Correspondence to Daphne Weihs.

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Ben-David, Y., Weihs, D. Modeling force application configurations and morphologies required for cancer cell invasion. Biomech Model Mechanobiol 20, 1187–1194 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10237-021-01441-9

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Keywords

  • Mechanobiology
  • Finite element analysis
  • Cancer metastasis
  • Cell invasion