The biological impact and signalling of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) during cancer metastasis has been established. However, the changes in biophysical properties of cancer cells undergoing EMT remain elusive. Here, we measured, via video particle tracking microrheology, the intracellular stiffness of head and neck cancer cell lines with distinct EMT phenotypes. We also examined cells migration and invasiveness in different extracellular matrix architectures and EMT-related signalling in these cell lines. Our results show that when cells were cultivated in three-dimensional (3D) environments, the differences in cell morphology, migration speed, invasion capability and intracellular stiffness were more pronounced among different head and neck cancer cell lines with distinct EMT phenotypes than those cultivated in traditional plastic dishes and/or seated on top of a thick layer of collagen. An inverse correlation between intracellular stiffness and invasiveness in 3D culture was revealed. Knock-down of the EMT regulator Twist1 or Snail or inhibition of Rac1 which is a downstream GTPase of Twist1 increased intracellular stiffness. These results indicate that the EMT regulators, Twist1 and Snail and the mediated signals play a critical role in reducing intracellular stiffness and enhancing cell migration in EMT to promote cancer cells invasion.
- cancer cells migration
- epithelial-mesenchymal transition
- intracellular stiffness
- three-dimensional (3D) cell culture environments
- Twist 1