Although an in vitro 3D environment cannot completely mimic the in vivo tumor site, embedding tumor cells in a 3D extracellular matrix (ECM) allows for the study of cancer cell behaviors and the screening of anti-metastatic reagents with a more in vivo-like context. Here we explored the behaviors of MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cells embedded in 3D collagen I. Diverse tumor environmental conditions (including cell density, extracellular acidity, or hypoxia as mimics for a continuous tumor growth) reduced JNKs, enhanced TGFβ1/Smad signaling activity, induced Snail1, and reduced cortactin expression. The reduced JNKs activity blocked efficient formation of invadopodia labeled with actin, cortactin, or MT1-MMP. JNKs inactivation activated Smad2 and Smad4, which were required for Snail1 expression. Snail1 then repressed cortactin expression, causing reduced invadopodia formation and prominent localization of MT1-MMP at perinuclear regions. MDA-MB-231 cells thus exhibited less efficient collagen I degradation and invasion in 3D collagen I upon JNKs inhibition. These observations support a signaling network among JNKs, Smads, Snail1, and cortactin to regulate the invasion of MDA-MB-231 cells embedded in 3D collagen I, which may be targeted during screening of anti-invasion reagents.
Keywords: 3D collagen; Cortactin; Invasion; JNK; Snail1.
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