The mechanical and adhesive properties of cancer cells significantly change during tumor progression. Here we assess the functional consequences of mismatched stiffness and adhesive properties between neighboring normal cells on cancer cell migration in an epithelial-like cell monolayer. Using an in vitro coculture system and live-cell imaging, we find that the speed of single, mechanically soft breast carcinoma cells is dramatically enhanced by surrounding stiff nontransformed cells compared with single cells or a monolayer of carcinoma cells. Soft tumor cells undergo a mode of pulsating migration that is distinct from conventional mesenchymal and amoeboid migration, whereby long-lived episodes of slow, random migration are interlaced with short-lived episodes of extremely fast, directed migration, whereas the surrounding stiff cells show little net migration. This bursty migration is induced by the intermittent, myosin II-mediated deformation of the soft nucleus of the cancer cell, which is induced by the transient crowding of the stiff nuclei of the surrounding nontransformed cells, whose movements depend directly on the cadherin-mediated mismatched adhesion between normal and cancer cells as well as α-catenin-based intercellular adhesion of the normal cells. These results suggest that a mechanical and adhesive mismatch between transformed and nontransformed cells in a cell monolayer can trigger enhanced pulsating migration. These results shed light on the role of stiff epithelial cells that neighbor individual cancer cells in early steps of cancer dissemination.
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