When cells come in contact with an adhesive matrix, they begin to spread and migrate with a speed that depends on the stiffness of the extracellular matrix. On a flat surface, migration speed decreases with matrix stiffness mainly due to an increased stability of focal adhesions. In a three-dimensional (3-D) environment, cell migration is thought to be additionally impaired by the steric hindrance imposed by the surrounding matrix. For porous 3-D biopolymer networks such as collagen gels, however, the effect of matrix stiffness on cell migration is difficult to separate from effects of matrix pore size and adhesive ligand density, and is therefore unknown. Here we used glutaraldehyde as a crosslinker to increase the stiffness of self-assembled collagen biopolymer networks independently of collagen concentration or pore size. Breast carcinoma cells were seeded onto the surface of 3-D collagen gels, and the invasion depth was measured after 3 days of culture. Cell invasion in gels with pore sizes >5 μm increased with higher gel stiffness, whereas invasion in gels with smaller pores decreased with higher gel stiffness. These data show that 3-D cell invasion is enhanced by higher matrix stiffness, opposite to cell behavior in two dimensions, as long as the pore size does not fall below a critical value where it causes excessive steric hindrance. These findings may be important for optimizing the recellularization of soft tissue implants or for the design of 3-D invasion models in cancer research.
Keywords: Cell migration; Crosslinking; Matrix mechanics; Matrix metalloproteinase; Pore size.
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