Fluorescent Silica Nanoparticles to Label Metastatic Tumor Cells in Mineralized Bone Microenvironments

Small. 2021 Apr;17(15):e2001432. doi: 10.1002/smll.202001432. Epub 2020 May 28.


During breast cancer bone metastasis, tumor cells interact with bone microenvironment components including inorganic minerals. Bone mineralization is a dynamic process and varies spatiotemporally as a function of cancer-promoting conditions such as age and diet. The functional relationship between skeletal dissemination of tumor cells and bone mineralization, however, is unclear. Standard histological analysis of bone metastasis frequently relies on prior demineralization of bone, while methods that maintain mineral are often harsh and damage fluorophores commonly used to label tumor cells. Here, fluorescent silica nanoparticles (SNPs) are introduced as a robust and versatile labeling strategy to analyze tumor cells within mineralized bone. SNP uptake and labeling efficiency of MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cells is characterized with cryo-scanning electron microscopy and different tissue processing methods. Using a 3D in vitro model of marrow-containing, mineralized bone as well as an in vivo model of bone metastasis, SNPs are demonstrated to allow visualization of labeled tumor cells in mineralized bone using various imaging modalities including widefield, confocal, and light sheet microscopy. This work suggests that SNPs are valuable tools to analyze tumor cells within mineralized bone using a broad range of bone processing and imaging techniques with the potential to increase the understanding of bone metastasis.

Keywords: bone imaging; bone metastasis; bone metastasis imaging; bone minerals; breast cancer cell labeling; silica nanoparticles.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bone Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Bone and Bones
  • Breast Neoplasms*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Nanoparticles*
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Silicon Dioxide