Cancer progression involves complex signals within the tumor microenvironment that orchestrate proliferation and invasive processes. The mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix (ECM) within this microenvironment has been demonstrated to influence growth and the migratory phenotype that precedes invasion. Here we present the integration of a label-free quantitative phase imaging technique, spatial light interference microscopy (SLIM)—with protein-conjugated hydrogel substrates—to explore how the stiffness of the ECM influences melanoma cells of varying metastatic potential. Melanoma cells of high metastatic potential demonstrate increased growth and velocity characteristics relative to cells of low metastatic potential. Cell velocity in the highly metastatic population shows a relative insensitivity to matrix stiffness suggesting adoption of migratory routines that are independent of mechanics to facilitate invasion. The use of SLIM and engineered substrates provides a new approach to characterize the invasive properties of live cells as a function of microenvironment parameters. This work provides fundamental insight into the relationship between growth, migration and metastatic potential, and provides a new tool for profiling cancer cells for clinical grading and development of patient-specific therapeutic regimens.
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