Relatively Rare Populations of Invasive Cells Drive Progression of Heterogeneous Tumors

Susan E. Leggett, Molly C. Brennan, Sophia Martinez, Joe Tien, Celeste M. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Breast tumors often display an astonishing degree of spatial and temporal heterogeneity, which are associated with cancer progression, drug resistance, and relapse. Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a particularly aggressive and heterogeneous subtype for which targeted therapies are scarce. Consequently, patients with TNBC have a poorer overall prognosis compared to other breast cancer patients. Within heterogeneous tumors, individual clonal subpopulations may exhibit differences in their rates of growth and degrees of invasiveness. We hypothesized that such phenotypic heterogeneity at the single-cell level may accelerate tumor progression by enhancing the overall growth and invasion of the entire tumor. Methods: To test this hypothesis, we isolated and characterized clonal subpopulations with distinct morphologies and biomarker expression from the inherently heterogeneous 4T1 mouse mammary carcinoma cell line. We then leveraged a 3D microfluidic tumor model to reverse-engineer intratumoral heterogeneity and thus investigate how interactions between phenotypically distinct subpopulations affect tumor growth and invasion. Results: We found that the growth and invasion of multiclonal tumors were largely dictated by the presence of cells with epithelial and mesenchymal traits, respectively. The latter accelerated overall tumor invasion, even when these cells comprised less than 1% of the initial population. Consistently, tumor progression was delayed by selectively targeting the mesenchymal subpopulation. Discussion: This work reveals that highly invasive cells can dominate tumor phenotype and that specifically targeting these cells can slow the progression of heterogeneous tumors, which may help inform therapeutic approaches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-24
Number of pages18
JournalCellular and Molecular Bioengineering
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


  • Epithelial–mesenchymal transition
  • Interstitial fluid flow
  • Morphodynamics


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