A 3D Heterotypic Multicellular Tumor Spheroid Assay Platform to Discriminate Drug Effects on Stroma versus Cancer Cells

SLAS Discov. 2020 Mar;25(3):265-276. doi: 10.1177/2472555219880194. Epub 2019 Oct 29.


Three-dimensional (3D) cell culture models are thought to mimic the physiological and pharmacological properties of tissues in vivo more accurately than two-dimensional cultures on plastic dishes. For the development of cancer therapies, 3D spheroid models are being created to reflect the complex histology and physiology of primary tumors with the hopes that drug responses will be more similar to and as predictive as those obtained in vivo. The effect of additional cell types in tumors, such as stromal cells, and the resulting heterotypic cell-cell crosstalk can be investigated in these heterotypic 3D cell cultures. Here, a high-throughput screening-compatible drug testing platform based on 3D multicellular spheroid models is described that enables the parallel assessment of toxicity on stromal cells and efficacy on cancer cells by drug candidates. These heterotypic microtissue tumor models incorporate NIH3T3 fibroblasts as stromal cells that are engineered with a reporter gene encoding secreted NanoLUC luciferase. By tracking the NanoLUC signal in the media over time, a time-related measurement of the cytotoxic effects of drugs on stromal cells over the cancer cells was possible, thus enabling the identification of a therapeutic window. An in vitro therapeutic index parameter is proposed to help distinguish and classify those compounds with broad cytotoxic effects versus those that are more selective at targeting cancer cells.

Keywords: 3D heterotypic spheroids; population-bound bioluminescence reporter; screening; stroma; therapeutic index.