Increased stiffness represents a hallmark of breast cancer that has been attributed to the altered physicochemical properties of the extracellular matrix (ECM). However, the role of fibronectin (Fn) in modulating the composition and mechanical properties of the tumor-associated ECM remains unclear. We have utilized a combination of biochemical and physical science tools to evaluate whether paracrine signaling between breast cancer cells and adipose progenitor cells regulates Fn matrix assembly and stiffness enhancement in the tumor stroma. In particular, we utilized fluorescence resonance energy transfer imaging to map the molecular conformation and stiffness of Fn that has been assembled by 3T3-L1 preadipocytes in response to conditioned media from MDA-MB231 breast cancer cells. Our results reveal that soluble factors secreted by tumor cells promote Fn expression, unfolding, and stiffening by adipose progenitor cells and that transforming growth factor-β serves as a soluble cue underlying these changes. In vivo experiments using orthotopic co-transplantation of primary human adipose-derived stem cells and MDA-MB231 into SCID mice support the pathological relevance of our results. Insights gained by these studies advance our understanding of the role of Fn in mammary tumorigenesis and may ultimately lead to improved anti-cancer therapies.
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