Solid tumors advance from benign stage to a deadly metastatic state due to the complex interaction between cancer cells and tumor microenvironment (TME) including stromal cells and extracellular matrix (ECM). Multiple studies have demonstrated that ECM dysregulation is one of the critical hallmarks of cancer progression leading to formation of a desmoplastic microenvironment that participates in tumor progression. Cancer associated fibroblasts (CAFs) are the predominant stromal cell type that participates in desmoplasia by depositing matrix proteins and increasing ECM stiffness. Although the influence of matrix stiffness on enhanced tumorigenicity has been well studied, the biological understanding about the dynamic changes in ECM architecture and the role of cancer-stromal cell interaction on ECM remodeling is still limited.
In this dissertation, the primary goal was to develop a comprehensive cellular and molecular level understanding of ECM remodeling due to the interaction of breast tumor cells and CAFs. To that end, a novel three-dimensional (3D) high-density tumor-stroma model was fabricated in which breast tumor cells (MDA-MB-231 and MCF7) were spatially organized surrounded by CAF-embedded collagen-I hydrogel (Aim 1). Further the platform was integrated with atomic force microscopy to assess the dynamic changes in ECM composition and stiffness during active tumor invasion. The results established an essential role of crosstalk between breast tumor cells and CAFs in ECM remodeling. The studies were further extended by dissecting the mode of interaction between tumor cells and CAFs followed by characterization of the role of various tumor secreted factors on ECM remodeling (Aim 2). The results for the first time established a critical role of paracrine signaling between breast tumor cells and CAFs in modulating biophysical properties of ECM. More in-depth analysis highlighted the role of tumor secreted cytokines, specifically PDGF-AA/BB, on CAF-induced desmoplasia. In aim 3, the platform was further utilized to test the synergistic influence of anti-fibrotic drug (tranilast) in conjugation with chemotherapeutic drug (Doxorubicin) on desmoplasia and tumor progression in the presence of CAFs. Overall this dissertation provided an in-depth understanding on the impact of breast cancer-stromal cell interaction in modulating biophysical properties of the ECM and identified the crucial role of tumor secreted cytokines including PDGF-AA/BB on desmoplasia.
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