Tissue-specific microenvironmental factors contribute to the targeting preferences of metastatic cancers. However, the physical attributes of the premetastatic microenvironment are not yet fully characterized. In this research, we develop a transwell-based alginate hydrogel (TAH) model to study how permeability, stiffness, and roughness of a hanging alginate hydrogel regulate breast cancer cell homing. In this model, a layer of physically characterized alginate hydrogel is formed at the bottom of a transwell insert, which is placed into a matching culture well with an adherent monolayer of breast cancer cells. We found that breast cancer cells dissociate from the monolayer and home to the TAH for continual growth. The process is facilitated by the presence of rich serum in the upper chamber, the increased stiffness of the gel, as well as its surface roughness. This model is able to support the homing ability of MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells drifting across the vertical distance in the culture medium. Cells homing to the TAH display stemness phenotype morphologically and biochemically. Taken together, these findings suggest that permeability, stiffness, and roughness are important physical factors to regulate breast cancer homing to a premetastatic microenvironment.
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