Epithelial ovarian cancer metastasis is driven by spheroids, which are heterogeneous cancer cell aggregates released from the primary tumour mass that passively disseminate throughout the peritoneal cavity to promote tumour spread, disease recurrence, and acquired chemoresistance. Despite their clinical importance, the molecular events that control spheroid attachment and invasion into underlying healthy tissues remain poorly understood. We examined a novel in vitro invasion model using imaging mass spectrometry to establish a "snapshot" of the spheroid/mesothelial interface. Amongst numerous adhesion-related proteins, we identified a sub-population of highly motile, invasive cells that expressed the basal epithelial marker KRT14 as an absolute determinant of invasive potential. The loss of KRT14 completely abrogated the invasive capacity, but had no impact on cell viability or proliferation, suggesting an invasion-specific role. Our data demonstrate KRT14 cells as an ovarian cancer "leader cell" phenotype underlying tumor invasion, and suggest their importance as a clinically relevant target in directed anti-tumour therapies.
Keywords: cancer metastasis; invasion; keratin 14; leader cells; ovarian cancer.