Introduction: The poor efficacy of various anti-cancer treatments against metastatic cells has focused attention on the role of tumor microenvironment in cancer progression. To understand the contribution of the extracellular matrix (ECM) environment to this phenomenon, we isolated ECM surrogate invading cell populations from MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cells and studied their genotype and malignant phenotype.
Methods: We isolated invasive subpopulations (INV) from non invasive populations (REF) using a 2D-Matrigel assay, a surrogate of basal membrane passage. INV and REF populations were investigated by microarray assay and for their capacities to adhere, invade and transmigrate in vitro, and to form metastases in nude mice.
Results: REF and INV subpopulations were stable in culture and present different transcriptome profiles. INV cells were characterized by reduced expression of cell adhesion and cell-cell junction genes (44% of down regulated genes) and by a gain in expression of anti-apoptotic and pro-angiogenic gene sets. In line with this observation, in vitro INV cells showed reduced adhesion and increased motility through endothelial monolayers and fibronectin. When injected into the circulation, INV cells induced metastases formation, and reduced injected mice survival by up to 80% as compared to REF cells. In nude mice, INV xenografts grew rapidly inducing vessel formation and displaying resistance to apoptosis.
Conclusion: Our findings reveal that the in vitro ECM microenvironment per se was sufficient to select for tumor cells with a stable metastatic phenotype in vivo characterized by loss of adhesion molecules expression and induction of pro-angiogenic and survival factors.