What is it about?

A research group, led by Dr James Conway and Professor Johanna Ivaska, from the University of Turku and Turku Bioscience Centre together with Misvik Biology Ltd in Finland have develop a new method for studying how cancer cells function in softer and stiffer tissue environments. This insight challenges the existing paradigm, opening up new possibilities for research in cancer biology and tissue engineering. A longstanding belief has been that cells outside the body prefer to spread and grow on stiffer surfaces. This is similar to when we walk on a concrete sidewalk (very stiff) and find it preferable to walking in mud (very soft). For this reason, cells, including stem cells, are continuously cultured on very stiff plastic or glass for research purposes. This idea also resonates with cancer cells thriving within a hard lump they form in tissues. Usually, the stiffer the tumour, the poorer the patients’ prognosis. However, the stiffness of the tissues in our body (e.g., bone versus brain) is not the same. In fact, some cells like neurons and fat cells grow and function effectively in very soft surroundings. The research group used computational modelling and a large array of growth conditions to meticulously compare cell behaviour on soft and stiff surfaces at an unprecedented resolution. Using an automated machine, the researchers microprinted different protein mixtures onto soft and stiff surfaces. The proteins chosen were those that typically surround cells in the body and give texture and information about the tissue environment. By working together, the team demonstrated that the right combination of proteins can support cells on a soft surface, providing crucial survival cues that result in cell growth similar to that observed on a stiffer surface.

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Why is it important?

These findings have unveiled a fundamental new perspective in mechanobiology. We've identified a mechanism through which we can explain how cells can effectively spread, function, and signal on soft substrates. This insight challenges the existing paradigm, opening up new possibilities for research in cancer biology, drug discovery and tissue engineering


I am super excited about these findings. They demonstrate that the ability of cells to sense and respond to the physical properties of their surroundings goes beyond sensing soft and stiff tissue and is fine-tuned by the protein composition of the tissue.

Johanna Ivaska
University of Turku

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Defined extracellular matrix compositions support stiffness-insensitive cell spreading and adhesion signaling, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2304288120.
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