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Extracellular matrix rigidity modulates neuroblastoma cell differentiation and N-myc expression

Wilbur A Lam12, Lizhi Cao1, Vaibhavi Umesh1, Albert J Keung3, Shamik Sen1 and Sanjay Kumar1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley, USA

2 Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, University of California, San Francisco, USA

3 Department of Chemical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, USA

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Molecular Cancer 2010, 9:35  doi:10.1186/1476-4598-9-35

Published: 10 February 2010


Neuroblastoma is a pediatric malignancy characterized by tremendous clinical heterogeneity, in which some tumors are extremely aggressive while others spontaneously differentiate into benign forms. Because the degree of differentiation correlates with prognosis, and because differentiating agents such as retinoic acid (RA) have proven to decrease mortality, much effort has been devoted to identifying critical regulators of neuroblastoma differentiation in the cellular microenvironment, including cues encoded in the extracellular matrix (ECM). While signaling between tumor cells and the ECM is classically regarded to be based purely on biochemical recognition of ECM ligands by specific cellular receptors, a number of recent studies have made it increasingly clear that the biophysical properties of the ECM may also play an important role in this cross-talk. Given that RA-mediated neuroblastoma differentiation is accompanied by profound changes in cell morphology and neurite extension, both of which presumably rely upon mechanotransductive signaling systems, it occurred to us that mechanical cues from the ECM might also influence RA-mediated differentiation, which in turn might regulate clinically-relevant aspects of neuroblastoma biology. In this study, we tested this hypothesis by subjecting a series of neuroblastoma culture models to ECM microenvironments of varying mechanical stiffness and examined the regulatory role of ECM stiffness in proliferation, differentiation, and expression of tumor markers. We find that increasing ECM stiffness enhances neuritogenesis and suppresses cell proliferation. Remarkably, increasing ECM stiffness also reduces expression of N-Myc, a transcription factor involved in multiple aspects of oncogenic proliferation that is used for evaluating prognosis and clinical grading of neuroblastoma. Furthermore, the addition of RA enhances all of these effects for all ECM stiffnesses tested. Together, our data strongly support the notion that the mechanical signals from the cellular microenvironment influence neuroblastoma differentiation and do so synergistically with RA. These observations support further investigation of the role of microenvironmental mechanical signals in neuroblastoma proliferation and differentiation and suggest that pharmacological agents that modulate the underlying mechanotransductive signaling pathways may have a role in neuroblastoma therapy.