Metastasis remains a clinically unsolved issue in cancer that is initiated by the acquisition of collective migratory properties of cancer cells. Phenotypic and functional heterogeneity that arise among cancer cells within the same tumor increase cellular plasticity and promote metastasis, however, their impact on collective cell migration is incompletely understood. Here, we show that in vitro collective cancer cell migration depends on FAK and MMP-2 and on the presence of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs). The absence of functional FAK rendered cancer cells incapable of invading the surrounding stroma. However, CAFs and cancer cells over-expressing MMP-2 released FAK-deficient cells from this constraint by taking the leader positions in the invasive tracks, pushing FAK-deficient squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) cells towards the stroma and leading to the transformation of non-invasive cells into invasive cells. Our cell-based studies and the RNAseq data from the TCGA cohort of patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinomas reveal that, although both FAK and MMP-2 over-expression are associated with epithelial-mesenchymal transition, it is only MMP-2, not FAK, that functions as an independent prognostic factor. Given the significant role of MMP-2 in cancer dissemination, targeting of this molecule, better than FAK, presents a more promising opportunity to block metastasis.
Keywords: cancer-associated fibroblasts; collective migration; focal adhesion kinase; matrix metallopeptidase 2; metastasis; squamous cell carcinomas.