While the mechanisms employed by metastatic cancer cells to migrate remain poorly understood, it has been widely accepted that metastatic cancer cells can invade the tumor stroma by degrading the extracellular matrix (ECM) with matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). Although MMP inhibitors showed early promise in preventing metastasis in animal models, they have largely failed clinically. Recently, studies have shown that some cancer cells can use proteolysis to mechanically rearrange their ECM to form tube-like “microtracks” which other cells can follow without using MMPs themselves. We speculate that this mode of migration in the secondary cells may be one example of migration which can occur without endogenous protease activity in the secondary cells. Here we present a technique to study this migration in a 3D, collagen-based environment which mimics the size and topography of the tracks produced by proteolytically active cancer cells. Using time-lapse phase-contrast microscopy, we find that these microtracks permit the rapid and persistent migration of noninvasive MCF10A mammary epithelial cells, which are unable to otherwise migrate in 3D collagen. Additionally, while highly metastatic MDAMB231 breast cancer cells are able to invade a 3D collagen matrix, seeding within the patterned microtracks induced significantly increased cell migration speed, which was not decreased by pharmacological MMP inhibition. Together, these data suggest that microtracks within a 3D ECM may facilitate the migration of cells in an MMP-independent fashion, and may reveal novel insight into the clinical challenges facing MMP inhibitors.
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