Project Stories: Interview with Marc Mora

Project Stories: Interview with Marc Mora

In order to understand and control how cells transmit and detect mechanical forces, it is important to take a look at every scale: from the nanometre level all the way up to entire organisms. The Mechano·Control project brings together an interdisciplinary research community with expertise in different scientific fields and scales. With this interview, we will take a closer look at the nanometre level, which is the level of molecules.

Cells stick to their surrounding extracellular matrix and to other cells using integrins and cadherins. Forces applied to these molecular links change their properties, determining how cells behave, and sometimes activating the expression of genes. Let’s travel to London together with Marc Mora, a Postdoc in Sergi Garcia-Manyes’ lab at King’s College London, and dive into the nano world.

The role of the Garcia-Manyes lab in London is to provide their expertise on single molecule techniques. More specifically, they aim to decipher how mechanical properties of proteins impact cellular processes, such as the molecular mechanisms of adhesion or the passage of proteins through the Nuclear Pore Complex (NPC). The NPC is a large complex of proteins, that spans the nuclear envelope, a double membrane that surrounds the nucleus in eukaryotic cells.

In the last couple of years, Marc Mora has been studying the nuclear translocation process of proteins through the NPC, which is a recently uncovered step in nuclear mechanotransduction. More specifically, Marc is investigating the interplay between two intrinsic properties of proteins, their mechanical stability and protein mass, to understand and predict the rate of nuclear shuttling of proteins, and in particular, of key mechanosensitive transcription factors such as the oncogenic YAP and MRTF-A, known for playing a key role in cancer progression. But how do researchers work in the lab at this very tiny scale?

Marc Mora “Exploring how the nanomechanical properties of proteins affect their nuclear translocation in cells”

Concretely, Marc performs cellular experiments where he in cancer cell lines (such as U2OS and MDA-MB-231) with previously characterised mechanical properties, which they independently measure during in vitro experiments with single molecule techniques. These protein cargoes with varying mechanical stabilities are manipulated in and out of the nucleus using optogenetic methods involving blue light illumination. In parallel to these experiments, Marc also uses single molecule magnetic tweezers to study the conformational dynamics under low physiological forces of key protein mechanosensors, such as talin, that play a fundamental role in determining the adhesion of several cancer cell lines.

Single Molecule Magnetic tweezer

With all these experiments, Marc and the team at KCL aim to uncover whether the mechanical properties of individual proteins have a direct, knock-on effect at the cellular level.

“We believe we will be able to build a comprehensive model that integrates protein mass, protein sequence and mechanical stability to understand the dynamics of proteins, such as mechanosensensitive transcription factors, as they shuttle to and away from the nucleus.”

Marc Mora, KCL

And this is crucial for the Mechano·Control ultimate goal. If the researchers manage to further understand the impact of protein mechanics on cellular behaviour, they will be able to target specific adhesive interactions at the cellular level and determine new steps in controlling the nuclear mechanotransduction of key oncogenic transcription factors, with the final future goal of abrogating breast tumour progression. By understanding these processes with sub-molecular detail, we will use the control of protein elasticity as new therapeutic tools to fight breast cancer treatment.

“I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to be part of this European Project where scientists form different fields come together to work towards a common goal. It is very important for my academic development to have the opportunity of being part of such project, aiming to create such impact on people’s lives adds Marc Mora. As we mentioned before, the Mechano·Control project covers a wide variety of scientific disciplines at very different scales, and as Marc says “This provides the grounds to put our single molecule work into a much broader context. This is an eye-opening experience in many different levels.”


Project stories: Interview with Antoine Khalil

In biomedical research, it is important to mimic the conditions that are found in our body. Traditionally, scientists have used 2D in vitro models where they grew cells on flat surfaces. However, as it can obviously be observed, the cells in our body are in three-dimension. So, wouldn’t it be amazing to create 3D models to study diseases, such as breast cancer?

Dr. Antoine Khalil and Mrs. Leonieke den Outer (master student) during confocal microscopy of cancer invasion in 3D matrices

Antoine Khalil is a senior Post-Doc at the UMC Utrecht in the Netherlands, in Johan de Rooij’s group. Their first and very important role at the Mechano·Control consortium was to establish the 3D in vitro models that recapitulate the characteristics of breast cancer in patients. They have used pieces of tumors (organoids) and grew them in 3D extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM is a complex network of proteins that surround the cells in our body and provide important signals that control cell behavior. Antoine and his colleagues have characterized these cancer organoids and are trying to understand the nature of the extracellular matrix (ECM) that leads to cancer invasion and metastasis.

Working with organoids and 3D ECM makes in vitro studies more reliable, because they retain several aspects of tumor characteristics, and because most of the invasion that takes place in cancer patients, occurs in a 3D environment. The researchers can manipulate these organoids with the aim to stop the ability of cancer cells to become invasive and therefore, this will provide therapeutic opportunities to target the spread of the tumor cells throughout the body.  

“We use a new type of model system for our research that is called organoid culture. Organoids are made from biopsy materials that are isolated from breast tumors in human patients or mouse models. In this way, we can grow a piece of tumor in a controlled environment and study the effects of specific ECM conditions on the induction of tumor cell invasion”, explains Antoine.

Invasion and spread of breast cancer into the surrounding breast tissue often happen in groups of cells (collective invasion). The invasion of the cancer cell groups is driven and guided by few specialized cancer cells called the leader cells. Antoine and his colleagues have identified and fluorescently-tagged molecules that are exclusively expressed in those leader cells. They also found that several of these molecules are activated by changes in the ECM stiffness and tension. Thanks to that, several of these models and markers are being used by the other members and institutions of the Mechano·Control project.

Antoine and his colleagues aim to unravel the molecules that are most important in the transition to an invasive leader cell state and suggest methods to interfere with this process to prevent breast cancer invasion and metastasis.

The “life-time” of a tumor goes through different stages: In the first stage, the tumor grows in an uncontrolled fashion. In this stage the tumor is still confined and the cancer cells remain at their site of origin. At a later stage, some cancer cells within the tumor undergo a transformation that makes them motile and invasive. When this happens, tumor cells can spread to different regions in the body (including lungs, liver and brain) to form secondary tumors (metastases). That is why understanding how invasion is regulated will allow blocking it and this is very important to prevent and reduce metastasis.

It is now very well known that stiffer extracellular matrices surrounding breast tumors strongly associates with breast cancer invasion. “Our major task in the Mechano·control project is to unravel the molecular machinery in breast cancer cells that is essential for ECM sensing and the acquisition of invasive behavior”.

Figure 1. ECM-Dependent invasion of breast cancer organoids. Breast cancer organoids (MMTV-PYMT) embedded in 3D matrigel and collagen I. In both ECM conditions, the basal cells (yellow) are positioned at the tumor-ECM interface. Only in collagen I, the basal cells undergo a transition into protrusive leader cells and drive collective invasion (white arrowheads).

Until now, their data has established that only a pre-defined subset of breast tumor cells (the basal cells) (Figure 1, yellow) can become the leaders of invasion (Figure 1, white arrowheads). These leader cells drive the movement of groups of cancer cells. Antoine’s work shows that becoming a leader cell is triggered by changes in biochemical and mechanical properties of the ECM.

We found that dynamic bidirectional interactions take place between the leader cells and the ECM. Changes in ECM biomechanics induce protrusive behavior in cancer cells, which causes further changes in the ECM that becomes permissive for directional cancer cell movement. We have identified a set of genes whose expression is activated in response to increase in ECM stiffness; many of those genes regulate ECM remodeling and cellular invasive behavior.”

Antoine Khalil, UMCU

This work and much more is what Antoine and his colleagues in de Rooij’s team have achieved within the Mechano·Control project, and we know that there is more exciting and promising research to come until the project ends. For Antoine being a part of the Mechano·Control community was a great opportunity for his work because this project brings together various research fields at very different scales, “Throughout our meetings, conferences and communications we have established strong connections with the partners and learned so much from experts in the cell-ECM interaction field, at the computational, nanoscale and molecular and cellular levels” tells Antoine.

Project Stories: Interview with Samuel Pearson

Project Stories: Interview with Samuel Pearson

Samuel Pearson moved from Australia to Germany, where he works with research groups all over Europe with one common goal: to understand the factors influencing cancer progression. Samuel, Head of Applications in the “Dynamic Biomaterials” division of the Leibniz Institute for New Materials (INM), led by Prof. Aranzazu del Campo, is one of the Mechano·Control members. His work is focused on upscaling the production of polymer materials for 3D cell culture and bringing them towards commercialisation. Let’s take a closer look into his role within the consortium.

To understand how diseases like breast cancer develop, the response of breast cancer cells to different factors need to be studied one by one in isolation in 3D cultures. Samuel Pearson and his team produce synthetic hydrogels for 3D cell encapsulation with the possibility to adjust different parameters. These hydrogels mimic the properties of the natural breast cancer tissue in normal and disease conditions.

A particular interest of his group is the upscaling of the hydrogel precursors using affordable precursors and the design of stable, easy-to-handle compositions. This is the first step in technology transfer from the Mechano·Control project. With Mechano·Control partners, these materials are further developed into predictive breast cancer models.

Another crucial milestone for Samuel and his team is the processability of the hydrogels, which is related to the rate at which they are formed, i.e. the speed of the crosslinking reaction [1] during which cells are retained in a 3D matrix. The group has developed a patented crosslinking approach [2] based on thiol-methyl sulfone reactions which offer very convenient timescales for uniform encapsulation of cells. “In the future, we want to optimize our 3D cell encapsulation systems for automated high throughput methods that will enhance reproducibility and expand the applicability of our platform” explains Samuel. “The figure below shows how basal and luminal cells in breast cancer organoids organise in response to different adhesive ligands in the surrounding polymer network, which relies on consistent network properties” adds Samuel.


Figure 1: Invasive H7 breast cancer organoids were encapsulated in biofunctional hydrogels made from polymers developed at the Leibniz-INM. After 2 days of encapsulation, the effect of different bioactive ligands RGD and DGEA on polarization of the basal cells (stained with K14) and luminal cells (stained with K8) was explored. Scale bar = 50 um. Cell encapsulation and imaging were performed by Dr. Gulistan Kocer.

The materials developed by Samuel and his team play a crucial role in the Mechano·Control consortium. The high level of control and uniformity of the synthetic hydrogels allows to reduce the experimental variability in the biological studies, and this will help to uncover the individual factors that influence cancer progression. Moreover, this technology will not only be of great use for the consortium, but it also offers broad scientific and commercial potential for other 3D tissue culture models.

We are optimising polymer structure and crosslinking chemistry to make hydrogels with very reliable properties. The focus right now is upscaling to allow high throughput studies and moving towards commercialisation

Samuel Pearson

The Mechano·Control project brings together an interdisciplinary research community with the aim to understand and control how cells transmit and detect mechanical forces, from molecules to organs, and all the way up to the organism level. This requires developing and integrating disparate technologies, and each research group involved in the project is an expert in a very specific field and scale: “Each group has its own deep expertise, but because we are working towards a common goal everyone is really motivated to understand the contributions from the other partners, which deepens everyone’s knowledge and experience.”

Adrián de Miguel Jiménez synthesises polymer precursors used for 3D encapsulation of #tumour spheroids, based on the new methyl sulfone-based crosslinking chemistry developed at INM

[1] A crosslink is a bond that links one polymer chain to another, forming a network. Hydrogels are crosslinked networks of hydrophilic polymers that are swollen with water and widely used for 3D cell culture. The crosslink density is a key parameter that determines the mechanical properties of the hydrogel, which can in turn influence the behaviour of encapsulated cells. In the research described above, covalent crosslinks are formed using a patented thiol-methyl sulfone crosslinking reaction.


[2] del Campo, A.; Farrukh, A.; Paez, J. I. Novel Hydrogels. WO2021001203A1, 2021, Priority DE102019117997A 2019-07-03, Filed 2020-06-23, Published 2021-01-07.