Cancer cells in poorly vascularized tumor regions need to adapt to an unfavorable metabolic microenvironment. As distance from supplying blood vessels increases, oxygen and nutrient concentrations decrease and cancer cells react by stopping cell cycle progression and becoming dormant. As cytostatic drugs mainly target proliferating cells, cancer cell dormancy is considered as a major resistance mechanism to this class of anti-cancer drugs. Therefore, substances that target cancer cells in poorly vascularized tumor regions have the potential to enhance cytostatic-based chemotherapy of solid tumors. With three-dimensional growth conditions, multicellular tumor spheroids (MCTS) reproduce several parameters of the tumor microenvironment, including oxygen and nutrient gradients as well as the development of dormant tumor regions. We here report the setup of a 3D cell culture compatible high-content screening system and the identification of nine substances from two commercially available drug libraries that specifically target cells in inner MCTS core regions, while cells in outer MCTS regions or in 2D cell culture remain unaffected. We elucidated the mode of action of the identified compounds as inhibitors of the respiratory chain and show that induction of cell death in inner MCTS core regions critically depends on extracellular glucose concentrations. Finally, combinational treatment with cytostatics showed increased induction of cell death in MCTS. The data presented here shows for the first time a high-content based screening setup on 3D tumor spheroids for the identification of substances that specifically induce cell death in inner tumor spheroid core regions. This validates the approach to use 3D cell culture screening systems to identify substances that would not be detectable by 2D based screening in otherwise similar culture conditions.
Keywords: 3D cell culture; 3D high-content screening; Advanced light microscopy; Multicellular tumor spheroids; Tumor dormancy.
Copyright © 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.