Matrix Density-induced Mechanoregulation of Breast Cell Phenotype, Signaling, and Gene Expression through a FAK ERK Linkage
University of Wisconsin Madison United States
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Mammographically dense breast tissue is one of the greatest risk factors for developing breast carcinoma, yet the associated molecular mechanisms remain largely unknown. Importantly, regions of high breast density are associated with increased stromal collagen and epithelial cell content. We set out to determine if increased collagen matrix density, in the absence of stromal cells, was sufficient to promote proliferation and invasion characteristic of a malignant phenotype in non-transformed mammary epithelial cells. We demonstrate that increased collagen matrix density increases matrix stiffness to promote an invasive phenotype. High matrix stiffness resulted in the increased formation of activated 3D-matrix adhesions and a chronically elevated outside-ininside-out FAK-Rho signaling loop, which was necessary to generate and maintain the invasive phenotype. Moreover, this signaling network resulted in hyper activation of the Ras-MAPK pathway, which promoted growth of mammary epithelial cells in vitro and in vivo and activated a clinically relevant proliferation signature that predicts patient outcome. Hence, the current data provides compelling evidence for the importance of the mechanical features of the microenvironment and suggest that mechanotransduction in these cells occurs through a FAK-Rho-ERK signaling network with ERK as a bottleneck through which much of the response to mechanical stimuli is regulated. As such, we propose that increased matrix stiffness explains part of the mechanism behind increased epithelial proliferation and cancer risk in human patients with high breast tissue density.