Phenotypically sorted highly and weakly migratory triple negative breast cancer cells exhibit migratory and metastatic commensalism

Breast Cancer Res. 2023 Aug 30;25(1):102. doi: 10.1186/s13058-023-01696-3.


Background: Intratumor heterogeneity is a well-established hallmark of cancer that impedes cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment. Previously, we phenotypically sorted human breast cancer cells based on migratory potential. When injected into mice, highly migratory cells were weakly metastatic and weakly migratory cells were highly metastatic. The purpose of this study was to determine whether these weakly and highly migratory cells interact with each other in vitro or in vivo.

Methods: To assess the relationship between heterogeneity in cancer cell migration and metastatic fitness, MDA-MB-231 and SUM159PT triple negative breast cancer cells were phenotypically sorted into highly migratory and weakly migratory subpopulations and assayed separately and in a 1:1 mixture in vitro and in vivo for metastatic behaviors. Unpaired, two-tailed Student's t-tests, Mann-Whitney tests, ordinary, one-way ANOVAs, and Kruskal-Wallis H tests were performed as appropriate with p < 0.05 as the cutoff for statistical significance.

Results: When highly and weakly migratory cells are co-seeded in mixed spheroids, the weakly migratory cells migrated farther than weakly migratory only spheroids. In mixed spheroids, leader-follower behavior occurred with highly migratory cells leading the weakly migratory cells in migration strands. When cell suspensions of highly migratory, weakly migratory, or a 1:1 mixture of both subpopulations were injected orthotopically into mice, both the mixed cell suspensions and weakly migratory cells showed significant distal metastasis, but the highly migratory cells did not metastasize significantly to any location. Notably, significantly more distal metastasis was observed in mice injected with the 1:1 mixture compared to either subpopulation alone.

Conclusions: This study suggests that weakly migratory cells interact with highly migratory cells in a commensal fashion resulting in increased migration and metastasis. Together, these findings indicate that cancer cell subpopulation migration ability does not correlate with metastatic potential and that cooperation between highly migratory and weakly migratory subpopulations can enhance overall metastatic fitness.

Keywords: Collective migration; Intratumor heterogeneity; Leader–follower; Metastasis; Single cell migration; Spheroid; Triple negative breast cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Assay
  • Cell Movement
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Suspensions
  • Symbiosis
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms*


  • Suspensions