Fibril bending stiffness of 3D collagen matrices instructs spreading and clustering of invasive and non-invasive breast cancer cells

Biomaterials. 2019 Feb;193:47-57. doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2018.12.010. Epub 2018 Dec 10.


Extracellular matrix stiffening of breast tissues has been clinically correlated with malignant transformation and poor prognosis. An increase of collagen fibril diameter and lysyl-oxidase mediated crosslinking has been observed in advanced tumor stages. Many current reports suggest that the local mechanical properties of single fibrillar components dominantly regulate cancer cell behavior. Here, we demonstrate by an independent control of fibril diameter and intrafibrillar crosslinking of three-dimensional (3D) collagen matrices that fibril bending stiffness instructs cell behavior of invasive and non-invasive breast cancer cells. Two types of collagen matrices with fibril diameter of either 650 nm or 800 nm at a similar pore size of 10 μm were reconstituted and further modified with the zero-length crosslinker 1-ethyl-3-(3-dimethyl aminopropyl)-carbodiimide (EDC) at concentrations of 0, 20, 100 and 500 mM. This approach yields two sets of collagen matrices with overlapping variation of matrix elasticity. With these matrices we could prove the common assumption that matrix elasticity of collagen networks is bending dominated with a linear dependence on fibril bending stiffness. We derive that the measured variation of matrix elasticity is directly correlated to the variation of fibril bending stiffness, being independently controlled either by fibril diameter or by intrafibrillar crosslinking. We use these defined matrices to demonstrate that the adjustment of fibril bending stiffness allows to instruct the behavior of two different breast cancer cell lines, invasive MDA-MB-231 (human breast carcinoma) and non-invasive MCF-7 cells (human breast adenocarcinoma). Invasiveness and spreading of invasive MDA-MB-231 cells as well as clustering of non-invasive MCF-7 cells is thereby investigated over a broad parameter range. Our results demonstrate and quantify the direct dependence of cancer cell phenotypes on the matrix mechanical properties on the scale of single fibrils.

Keywords: Cancer invasion; Extracellular matrix (ECM); Fibril bending stiffness; Mechanobiology; Network elasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Collagen / metabolism*
  • Cytoskeleton / metabolism
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • MCF-7 Cells


  • Collagen