12th Annual Symposium
Physics of Cancer
Leipzig, Germany
Aug 30 - Sept 1, 2021
Invited Talk
Why do rigid tumors contain soft cells?
Thomas Fuhs
Leipzig University, Faculty of Physics and Earth Sciences, PDI, Soft Matter Physics Group, Linnéstr. 5, 04103 Leipzig, Germany
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Palpation, as already mentioned in the ancient Egyptian medical text Ebers Papyrus, utilizes that solid tumors are stiffer than the surrounding tissue. However, cancer cell lines tend to soften, which may intuitively foster invasion. This paradox raises several questions besides the oxymoron itself: Does softness emerge from adaptation to mechanical and chemical cues in the external microenvironment to squeeze through the ECM? Or are soft cells already present inside a rigid primary tumor mass to support cancer cell unjamming? We investigate primary tumor explants from patients with breast and cervix carcinomas on multiple length scales from the tissue level down to single cells. We find that primary tumors are highly heterogeneous in their mechanical properties starting on the tissue level, this heterogeneity persists down to the individual cells in cancer cell clusters that exhibit a broad distribution of rigidities, with a higher fraction of softer and more elongated cells compared to normal tissue. Mechanical modelling based on patient data reveals that a tumor mass as a whole is able to remain a rigid solid behavior even when it contains a significant fraction of very soft cells. Moreover, it predicts that the heterotypic microenvironment among tumors induces multicellular streams, which we observe experimentally.
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