Extracellular vesicles released by cancer cells have recently been implicated in the differentiation of stromal cells to their activated, cancer-supporting states. Microvesicles, a subset of extracellular vesicles released from the plasma membrane of cancer cells, contain biologically active cargo, including DNA, mRNA, and miRNA, which are transferred to recipient cells and induce a phenotypic change in behavior. While it is known that microvesicles can alter recipient cell phenotype, little is known about how the physical properties of the tumor microenvironment affect fibroblast response to microvesicles. Here, we utilized cancer cell-derived microvesicles and synthetic substrates designed to mimic the stiffness of the tumor and tumor stroma to investigate the effects of microvesicles on fibroblast phenotype as a function of the mechanical properties of the microenvironment. We show that microvesicles released by highly malignant breast cancer cells cause an increase in fibroblast spreading, α-smooth muscle actin expression, proliferation, cell-generated traction force, and collagen gel compaction. Notably, our data indicate that these phenotypic changes occur only on stiff matrices mimicking the stiffness of the tumor periphery and are dependent on the cell type from which the microvesicles are shed. Overall, these results show that the effects of cancer cell-derived microvesicles on fibroblast activation are regulated by the physical properties of the microenvironment, and these data suggest that microvesicles may have a more robust effect on fibroblasts located at the tumor periphery to influence cancer progression.
Keywords: cell contractility; extracellular matrix; fibroblast activation; mechanotransduction; traction force.