Cellular heterogeneity and extracellular matrix (ECM) stiffening have been shown to be drivers of breast cancer invasiveness. Here, we examine how stiffness-dependent crosstalk between cancer cells and mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) within an evolving tumor microenvironment regulates cancer invasion. By analyzing previously published single-cell RNA sequencing datasets, we establish the existence of a subpopulation of cells in primary tumors, secondary sites and circulatory tumor cell clusters of highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) that co-express MSC and cancer-associated fibroblast (CAF) markers. By using hydrogels with stiffnesses of 0.5, 2 and 5 kPa to mimic different stages of ECM stiffening, we show that conditioned medium from MDA-MB-231 TNBC cells cultured on 2 kPa gels, which mimic the pre-metastatic stroma, drives efficient MSC chemotaxis and induces stable differentiation of MSC-derived CAFs in a TGFβ (TGFB1)- and contractility-dependent manner. In addition to enhancing cancer cell proliferation, MSC-derived CAFs on 2 kPa gels maximally boost local invasion and confer resistance to flow-induced shear stresses. Collectively, our results suggest that homing of MSCs at the pre-metastatic stage and their differentiation into CAFs actively drives breast cancer invasion and metastasis in TNBC.

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