Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > Biophysics of Cancer Progression and High-Throughput Mechanical Characterization of Biomaterials

Cancer metastasis involves a series of events known as the metastatic cascade. In this complex progression, cancer cells detach from the primary tumor, invade the surrounding stromal space, transmigrate the vascular system, and establish secondary tumors at distal sites. Specific mechanical phenotypes are likely adopted to enable cells to successfully navigate the mechanical environments encountered during metastasis. To examine the role of cell mechanics in cancer progression, I employed force-consistent biophysical and biochemical assays to characterize the mechanistic links between stiffness, stiffness response and cell invasion during the epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). EMT is an essential physiological process, whose abnormal reactivation has been implicated in the detachment of cancer cells from epithelial tissue and their subsequent invasion into stromal tissue. I demonstrate that epithelial-state cells respond to force by evoking a stiffening response, and that after EMT, mesenchymal-state cells have reduced stiffness but also lose the ability to increase their stiffness in response to force. Using loss and gain of function studies, two proteins are established as functional connections between attenuated stiffness and stiffness response and the increased invasion capacity acquired after EMT. To enable larger scale assays to more fully explore the connection between biomechanics and cancer, I discuss the development of an automated array high throughput (AHT) microscope. The AHT system is shown to implement passive microbead rheology to accurately characterize the mechanical properties of biomaterials. Compared to manually performed mechanical characterizations, the AHT system executes experiments in two orders of magnitude less time. Finally, I use the AHT microscope to study the effect of gain of function oncogenic molecules on cell stiffness. I find evidence that our assay can identify alterations in cell stiffness due to constitutive activation of cancer pathways.