In vitro generation of monocyte-derived macrophages under serum-free conditions improves their tumor promoting functions

PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e42656. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042656. Epub 2012 Aug 6.


The tumor promoting role of M2 macrophages has been described in in vivo models and the presence of macrophages in certain tumor types has been linked to a poor clinical outcome. In light of burgeoning activities to clinically develop new therapies targeting tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs), reliable in vitro models faithfully mimicking the tumor promoting functions of TAMs are required. Generation and activation of human monocyte-derived macrophages (MDM) in vitro, described as M1 or M2 macrophages attributed with tumoricidal or tumor-promoting functions, respectively, has been widely reported using mainly serum containing culture methods. In this study, we compared the properties of macrophages originating from monocytes cultured either in media containing serum together with M-CSF for M2 and GM-CSF for M1 macrophages or in serum-free media supplemented with M-CSF or GM-CSF and cytokines such as IL-4, IL-10 to induce activated M2 or LPS together with IFN-γ to generate activated M1 phenotype. We observed differences in cell morphology as well as increased surface receptor expression levels in serum-containing culture whereas similar or higher cytokine production levels were detected under serum-free culture conditions. More importantly, MDM differentiated under serum-free conditions displayed enhanced tumoricidal activity for M1 and tumor promoting property for M2 macrophages in contrast to MDM differentiated in the presence of serum. Moreover, evaluation of MDM phagocytic activity in serum free condition resulted in greater phagocytic properties of M2 compared to M1. Our data therefore confirm the tumor promoting properties of M2 macrophages in vitro and encourage the targeting of TAMs for cancer therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Culture Techniques / methods*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell Shape / drug effects
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / drug effects
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / pathology*
  • Chemokines / metabolism
  • Culture Media, Conditioned / pharmacology
  • Culture Media, Serum-Free
  • Humans
  • Macrophage Activation / drug effects
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Macrophages / pathology*
  • Phagocytosis / drug effects
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism


  • Chemokines
  • Culture Media, Conditioned
  • Culture Media, Serum-Free
  • Receptors, Cell Surface

Grant support

The authors have no support or funding to report.