Cancer stem cells (CSCs) have been believed to be one driving force for tumor progression and drug resistance. Despite the significance of biochemical signaling in malignancy, highly malignant tumor cells or CSCs exhibit lower cellular stiffness than weakly malignant cells or non-CSCs, which are softer than their healthy counterparts, suggesting the inverse correlation between cell stiffness and malignancy. Recent years have witnessed the rapid accumulation of evidence illustrating the reciprocity between cell cytoskeleton/mechanics and CSC functions and the potential of cellular stiffness for specific targeting of CSCs. However, a systematic understanding of tumor cell mechanics and their role in CSCs and tumor progression is still lacking. The present review summarizes the recent progress in the alterations of tumor cell cytoskeleton and stiffness at different stages of tumor progression and recapitulates the relationship between cellular stiffness and CSC functions. The altered cell mechanics may mediate the mechanoadaptive responses that possibly empower CSCs to survive and thrive during metastasis. Furthermore, we highlight the possible impact of tumor cell mechanics on CSC malignancy, which may potentiate low cell stiffness as a mechanical marker for CSC targeting.

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