Soft Substrates Containing Hyaluronan Mimic the Effects of Increased Stiffness on Morphology, Motility, and Proliferation of Glioma Cells

Biomacromolecules. 2017 Oct 9;18(10):3040-3051. doi: 10.1021/acs.biomac.7b00324. Epub 2017 Sep 14.


Unlike many other cancer cells that grow in tumors characterized by an abnormally stiff collagen-enriched stroma, glioma cells proliferate and migrate in the much softer environment of the brain, which generally lacks the filamentous protein matrix characteristic of breast, liver, colorectal, and other types of cancer. Glial cell-derived tumors and the cells derived from them are highly heterogeneous and variable in their mechanical properties, their response to treatments, and their properties in vitro. Some glioma samples are stiffer than normal brain when measured ex vivo, but even those that are soft in vitro stiffen after deformation by pressure gradients that arise in the tumor environment in vivo. Such mechanical differences can strongly alter the phenotype of cultured glioma cells. Alternatively, chemical signaling might elicit the same phenotype as increased stiffness by activating intracellular messengers common to both initial stimuli. In this study the responses of three different human glioma cell lines to changes in substrate stiffness are compared with their responses on very soft substrates composed of a combination of hyaluronic acid and a specific integrin ligand, either laminin or collagen I. By quantifying cell morphology, stiffness, motility, proliferation, and secretion of the cytokine IL-8, glioma cell responses to increased stiffness are shown to be nearly identically elicited by substrates containing hyaluronic acid, even in the absence of increased stiffness. PI3-kinase activity was required for the response to hyaluronan but not to stiffness. This outcome suggests that hyaluronic acid can trigger the same cellular response, as can be obtained by mechanical force transduced from a stiff environment, and demonstrates that chemical and mechanical features of the tumor microenvironment can achieve equivalent reactions in cancer cells.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement*
  • Cell Proliferation*
  • Elasticity
  • Glioma / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hyaluronic Acid / chemistry
  • Hyaluronic Acid / pharmacology
  • Interleukin-8 / metabolism
  • Neuroglia / cytology*
  • Neuroglia / drug effects
  • Neuroglia / metabolism
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Surface Properties
  • Tissue Scaffolds / adverse effects
  • Tissue Scaffolds / chemistry*


  • Interleukin-8
  • Hyaluronic Acid
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases