Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second deadliest cancer in the US due to its propensity to metastasize. Stromal cells and especially cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAF) play a critical biophysical role in cancer progression, but the precise pro-metastatic mechanisms are not clear. Activin A, a TGF-β family member, is a strong pro-metastatic cytokine in the context of CRC. Here, we assessed the link between biophysical forces and pro-metastatic signaling by testing the hypothesis that CAF-generated mechanical forces lead to activin A release and associated downstream effects. Consistent with our hypothesis, we first determined that stromal activin A secretion increased with increasing substrate stiffness. Then we found that stromally-secreted activin A induced ligand-dependent CRC epithelial cell migration and epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). In addition, serum activin A levels are significantly increased in metastatic (stage IV) CRC patients (1.558 ng/ml versus 0.4179 ng/ml, p < 0.05). We propose that increased tumor microenvironment stiffness leads to stromal cell-mediated TGF-β family signaling relying on the induction and utilization of activin A signaling.
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