Glycocalyx regulates the strength and kinetics of cancer cell adhesion revealed by biophysical models based on high resolution label-free optical data

Sci Rep. 2020 Dec 30;10(1):22422. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-80033-6.


The glycocalyx is thought to perform a potent, but not yet defined function in cellular adhesion and signaling. Since 95% of cancer cells have altered glycocalyx structure, this role can be especially important in cancer development and metastasis. The glycocalyx layer of cancer cells directly influences cancer progression, involving the complicated kinetic process of cellular adhesion at various levels. In the present work, we investigated the effect of enzymatic digestion of specific glycocalyx components on cancer cell adhesion to RGD (arginine-glycine-aspartic acid) peptide motif displaying surfaces. High resolution kinetic data of cell adhesion was recorded by the surface sensitive label-free resonant waveguide grating (RWG) biosensor, supported by fluorescent staining of the cells and cell surface charge measurements. We found that intense removal of chondroitin sulfate (CS) and dermatan sulfate chains by chondroitinase ABC reduced the speed and decreased the strength of adhesion of HeLa cells. In contrast, mild digestion of glycocalyx resulted in faster and stronger adhesion. Control experiments on a healthy and another cancer cell line were also conducted, and the discrepancies were analysed. We developed a biophysical model which was fitted to the kinetic data of HeLa cells. Our analysis suggests that the rate of integrin receptor transport to the adhesion zone and integrin-RGD binding is strongly influenced by the presence of glycocalyx components, but the integrin-RGD dissociation is not. Moreover, based on the kinetic data we calculated the dependence of the dissociation constant of integrin-RGD binding on the enzyme concentration. We also determined the dissociation constant using a 2D receptor binding model based on saturation level static data recorded at surfaces with tuned RGD densities. We analyzed the discrepancies of the kinetic and static dissociation constants, further illuminating the role of cancer cell glycocalyx during the adhesion process. Altogether, our experimental results and modelling demonstrated that the chondroitin sulfate and dermatan sulfate chains of glycocalyx have an important regulatory function during the cellular adhesion process, mainly controlling the kinetics of integrin transport and integrin assembly into mature adhesion sites. Our results potentially open the way for novel type of cancer treatments affecting these regulatory mechanisms of cellular glycocalyx.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biosensing Techniques
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology*
  • Chondroitin ABC Lyase / metabolism
  • Chondroitin Sulfates / metabolism
  • Dermatan Sulfate / metabolism
  • Focal Adhesions / metabolism
  • Focal Adhesions / pathology
  • Glycocalyx / metabolism*
  • Glycocalyx / pathology*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Integrins / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Biological
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Oligopeptides / metabolism


  • Integrins
  • Oligopeptides
  • Dermatan Sulfate
  • arginyl-glycyl-aspartic acid
  • Chondroitin Sulfates
  • Chondroitin ABC Lyase