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CHARACTERIZING INTERACTIONS BETWEEN CANCER CELLS AND THE EXTRACELLULAR MATRIX IN METASTATIC BREAST CANCER THROUGH FIBRONECTIN ACCUMULATION
Metastases are responsible for approximately 90% of all cancer-related deaths, with metastatic breast cancer (BC) holding a 5-year survival rate of only 27%. Recent research has highlighted a complex dynamic between cancer cells and the tumor microenvironment as essential for the formation of macrometastases. Within this field, tissue stiffening through matrix accumulation and altered matrix organization at the primary tumor site were recently linked with sustained proliferation and increased migration of tumor cells. Separately, elevated levels of the glycoprotein, fibronectin, were correlated to poor patient survival in BC and were linked to enhanced seeding of disseminated tumor cells at metastatic sites. Through my doctoral work, we have identified several mechanisms through which accumulated fibronectin impacts the metastatic potential of BC cells. First, we identified a transient increase in extracellular fibronectin in the lungs, which peaked before overt metastasis, coupled with a non-transient increase in total lung volume. To better recapitulate physiological conditions, we then developed a novel magnetically-actuated platform with the ability to apply tensile strain on cells at various amplitudes and frequencies in a high-throughput multi-well culture plate using suspended fibrillar fibronectin for 3D cell culture that is not reliant on a synthetic substrate. Using this as a biomimetic lung model, we found that cyclic mechanical force acted as a suppressor of cancer cell growth in a biomimetic lung model, implicating the accumulation and reorganization of extracellular matrix as an attempt by the cancer cells to alter the mechanical properties of the lung tissue and resist entering dormancy. However, our results showed that BC cells could not organize extracellular fibronectin independently. Instead, BC cells altered the accumulation and architecture of fibronectin by conditioning fibroblasts through soluble factors and extracellular vesicles. We observed that the fibronectin produced by conditioned fibroblasts varied as an effect of both the method of conditioning and the phenotype of the BC cell as the conditioning source. Taken together, these results have increased our knowledge of the relationship between disseminated breast cancer cells, fibroblasts, and fibronectin architecture in the early metastatic lung niche that paves the way for further investigation on targeting disseminated BC cells during early disease intervention in order to inhibit later overt metastatic outgrowth.