Changes of immune microenvironment in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma in 3D-4-culture compared to 2D-4-culture

J Transl Med. 2023 Oct 31;21(1):771. doi: 10.1186/s12967-023-04650-1.


Background: The immune system plays a crucial role in initiating, progressing, and disseminating HNSCC. This study aims to investigate the differences in immune microenvironments between 2D-4-culture and 3D-4-culture models of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) cells (FaDu), human fibroblasts (HF), human monocytes (THP-1), and human endothelial cells (HUVEC).

Methods: For the 3D-4-culture model, FaDu:HF:THP-1 (2:1:1) were inoculated in an ultra-low attachment culture plate, while HUVECs were placed in a transwell chamber. The ordinary culture plate was used for the 2D-4-culture model. Tumor-associated macrophage markers (CD163), tumor-associated fibroblast markers (FAP), and epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) were detected by western blot. Inflammatory cytokines (IL-4, IL-2, CXCL 10, IL-1 β, TNF-α, CCL 2, IL-17 A, IL-6, IL-10, IFN-γ, IL-12 p 70, CXCL 8, TGFβ1) in the supernatant were measured by flow cytometry. HUVEC migration was observed under a microscope. The 3D spheres were stained and observed with a confocal microscope. CCK8 assay was used to detect the resistance of mixed cells to cisplatin in both 2D-4-culture and 3D-4-culture.

Results: After three days of co-culture, the 3D-4-culture model showed increased expression levels of CD163 and FAP proteins (both P < 0.001), increased expression of E-cadherin protein and N-cadherin protein expression (P < 0.001), decreased expression of vimentin (P < 0.01) and Twist protein (P < 0.001). HUVEC migration significantly increased (P < 0.001), as did the concentrations of IP-10, MCP-1, IL-6, and IL-8 (all P < 0.001). Confocal microscopy showed that 3D-4-culture formed loose cell clusters on day 1, which gradually became a dense sphere surrounded by FaDu cells invading the inside. After co-culturing for 24 h, 48 h, and 72 h, the resistance of mix cells to cisplatin in 3D-4-culture was significantly higher than in 2D-4-culture (P < 0.01 for all).

Conclusion: Compared to 2D-4-culture, 3D-4-culture better simulates the in vivo immune microenvironment of HNSCC by promoting fibroblast transformation into tumor-associated fibroblasts, monocyte transformation into tumor-associated macrophages, enhancing endothelial cell migration ability, partial EMT formation in HNSCC cells, and is more suitable for studying the immunosuppressive microenvironment of HNSCC.

Keywords: 2D-4-culture; 3D-4-culture; Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma; Immune microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / pathology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cisplatin
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms*
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-6
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma of Head and Neck
  • Transcription Factors
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Cisplatin
  • Interleukin-6
  • Transcription Factors