Mechanical interactions between tumors and the extracellular matrix (ECM) of the surrounding tissues have profound effects on a wide variety of cellular functions. An underappreciated mediator of tumor–ECM interactions is the glycocalyx, the sugar-decorated proteins and lipids that act as a buffer between the tumor and the ECM, which in turn mediates all cell-tissue mechanics. Importantly, tumors have an increase in the density of the glycocalyx, which in turn increases the tension of the cell membrane, alters tissue mechanics, and drives a more cancerous phenotype. In this review, we describe the basic components of the glycocalyx and the glycan moieties implicated in cancer. Next, we examine the important role the glycocalyx plays in driving tension-mediated cancer cell signaling through a self-enforcing feedback loop that expands the glycocalyx and furthers cancer progression. Finally, we discuss current tools used to edit the composition of the glycocalyx and the future challenges in leveraging these tools into a novel tractable approach to treat cancer.

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