Flow induces epithelial-mesenchymal transition, cellular heterogeneity and biomarker modulation in 3D ovarian cancer nodules

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 May 28;110(22):E1974-83. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1216989110. Epub 2013 May 3.


Seventy-five percent of patients with epithelial ovarian cancer present with advanced-stage disease that is extensively disseminated intraperitoneally and prognosticates the poorest outcomes. Primarily metastatic within the abdominal cavity, ovarian carcinomas initially spread to adjacent organs by direct extension and then disseminate via the transcoelomic route to distant sites. Natural fluidic streams of malignant ascites triggered by physiological factors, including gravity and negative subdiaphragmatic pressure, carry metastatic cells throughout the peritoneum. We investigated the role of fluidic forces as modulators of metastatic cancer biology in a customizable microfluidic platform using 3D ovarian cancer nodules. Changes in the morphological, genetic, and protein profiles of biomarkers associated with aggressive disease were evaluated in the 3D cultures grown under controlled and continuous laminar flow. A modulation of biomarker expression and tumor morphology consistent with increased epithelial-mesenchymal transition, a critical step in metastatic progression and an indicator of aggressive disease, is observed because of hydrodynamic forces. The increase in epithelial-mesenchymal transition is driven in part by a posttranslational up-regulation of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) expression and activation, which is associated with the worst prognosis in ovarian cancer. A flow-induced, transcriptionally regulated decrease in E-cadherin protein expression and a simultaneous increase in vimentin is observed, indicating increased metastatic potential. These findings demonstrate that fluidic streams induce a motile and aggressive tumor phenotype. The microfluidic platform developed here potentially provides a flow-informed framework complementary to conventional mechanism-based therapeutic strategies, with broad applicability to other lethal malignancies.

Keywords: combination therapies; molecular targets; photodynamic therapy; stress response; tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Ascites / physiopathology
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Cadherins / metabolism
  • Cell Culture Techniques
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / physiology*
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Microfluidic Analytical Techniques / methods*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Neoplasms, Glandular and Epithelial / secondary*
  • Ovarian Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Peritoneal Neoplasms / secondary*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Cadherins
  • ErbB Receptors