Modulation of AKT activity is associated with reversible dormancy in ascites-derived epithelial ovarian cancer spheroids

Carcinogenesis. 2012 Jan;33(1):49-58. doi: 10.1093/carcin/bgr241. Epub 2011 Oct 31.


Epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC) metastasis is a direct contributor to high recurrence and low survival for patients with this disease. Metastasis in EOC occurs by cell exfoliation from the primary tumor into the fluid-filled peritoneal cavity, persistence of these cells as non-adherent multicellular aggregates or spheroids and reattachment of spheroids to form secondary lesions. We have recovered native spheroids from ascites fluid and demonstrated that EOC cells within these structures exhibit reduced proliferation, yet regain the capacity to attach and reinitiate cell division. To model this process in vitro for further investigation, primary EOC cells from patient peritoneal fluid were cultured under non-adherent conditions. Here we show that these cells naturally form spheroids resembling those observed in ascites. Spheroids exhibit reduced cell proliferation and a protein expression pattern consistent with cellular quiescence: specifically, decreased phospho-AKT and p45/SKP2 with a concomitant increase in p130/RBL2 and p27(Kip1). However, when spheroids are seeded to an adherent surface, reattachment occurs rapidly and is followed by reinitiation of AKT-dependent cell proliferation. These results were strikingly consistent among numerous clinical specimens and were corroborated in the EOC cell line OVCAR3. Therefore, our data reveal that EOC cells become quiescent when forming spheroids, but reactivate proliferative mechanisms upon attachment to a permissive substratum. Overall, this work utilizes a novel in vitro model of EOC metastasis that employs primary human EOC cells and introduces the important concept of reversible dormancy in EOC pathogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ascites / pathology*
  • Carcinoma, Ovarian Epithelial
  • Cell Adhesion
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Glandular and Epithelial / enzymology
  • Neoplasms, Glandular and Epithelial / pathology*
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt / metabolism*
  • Spheroids, Cellular / pathology*


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt