Multiplex quantitative analysis of stroma-mediated cancer cell invasion, matrix remodeling, and drug response in a 3D co-culture model of pancreatic tumor spheroids and stellate cells

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2019 Jun 14;38(1):258. doi: 10.1186/s13046-019-1225-9.


Background: Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is a stroma-rich carcinoma, and pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs) are a major component of this dense stroma. PSCs play significant roles in metastatic progression and chemoresistance through cross-talk with cancer cells. Preclinical in vitro tumor model of invasive phenotype should incorporate three-dimensional (3D) culture of cancer cells and PSCs in extracellular matrix (ECM) for clinical relevance and predictability.

Methods: PANC-1 cells were cultured as tumor spheroids (TSs) using our previously developed minipillar chips, and co-cultured with PSCs, both embedded in collagen gels. Effects of PSC co-culture on ECM fiber network, invasive migration of cancer cells, and expression of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT)-related proteins were examined. Conditioned media was also analyzed for secreted factors involved in cancer cell-PSC interactions. Inhibitory effect on cancer cell invasion was compared between gemcitabine and paclitaxel at an equitoxic concentration in PANC-1 TSs co-cultured with PSCs.

Results: Co-culture condition was optimized for the growth of TSs, activation of PSCs, and their interaction. Increase in cancer cell invasion via ECM remodeling, invadopodia formation and EMT, as well as drug resistance was recapitulated in the TS-PSC co-culture, and appeared to be mediated by cancer cell-PSC interaction via multiple secreted factors, including IL-6, IL-8, IGF-1, EGF, TIMP-1, uPA, PAI-1, and TSP-1. Compared to gemcitabine, paclitaxel showed a greater anti-invasive activity, which was attributed to suppresion of invadopodia formation in cancer cells as well as to PSC-specific cytotoxicity abrogating its paracrine signaling.

Conclusions: Here, we established 3D co-culture of TSs of PANC-1 cells and PSCs using minipillar histochips as a novel tumoroid model of PDAC. Our results indicate usefulness of the present co-culture model and multiplex quantitative analysis method not only in studying the role of PSCs and their interactions with tumor cell towards metastatic progression, but also in the drug evaluation of stroma-targeting drugs.

Keywords: 3D co-culture; Cancer invasion; Matrix remodeling; Paclitaxel; Pancreatic stellate cell; Tumor microenvironment; Tumor spheroids.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers
  • Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts / metabolism*
  • Cell Communication*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Movement
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism*
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Models, Biological
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Spheroids, Cellular
  • Stromal Cells / metabolism*


  • Biomarkers