A facile in vitro platform to study cancer cell dormancy under hypoxic microenvironments using CoCl2

Hak Rae Lee, Faith Leslie, Samira M. Azarin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Background: While hypoxia has been well-studied in various tumor microenvironments, its role in cancer cell dormancy is poorly understood, in part due to a lack of well-established in vitro and in vivo models. Hypoxic conditions under conventional hypoxia chambers are relatively unstable and cannot be maintained during characterization outside the chamber since normoxic response is quickly established. To address this challenge, we report a robust in vitro cancer dormancy model under a hypoxia-mimicking microenvironment using cobalt chloride (CoCl2), a hypoxia-mimetic agent, which stabilizes hypoxia inducible factor 1-alpha (HIF1α), a major regulator of hypoxia signaling. Methods: We compared cellular responses to CoCl2 and true hypoxia (0.1% O2) in different breast cancer cell lines (MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231) to investigate whether hypoxic regulation of breast cancer dormancy could be mimicked by CoCl2. To this end, expression levels of hypoxia markers HIF1α and GLUT1 and proliferation marker Ki67, cell growth, cell cycle distribution, and protein and gene expression were evaluated under both CoCl2 and true hypoxia. To further validate our platform, the ovarian cancer cell line OVCAR-3 was also tested. Results: Our results demonstrate that CoCl2 can mimic hypoxic regulation of cancer dormancy in MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 breast cancer cell lines, recapitulating the differential responses of these cell lines to true hypoxia in 2D and 3D. Moreover, distinct gene expression profiles in MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells under CoCl2 treatment suggest that key cell cycle components are differentially regulated by the same hypoxic stress. In addition, the induction of dormancy in MCF-7 cells under CoCl2 treatment is HIF1α-dependent, as evidenced by the inability of HIF1α-suppressed MCF-7 cells to exhibit dormant behavior upon CoCl2 treatment. Furthermore, CoCl2 also induces and stably maintains dormancy in OVCAR-3 ovarian cancer cells. Conclusions: These results demonstrate that this CoCl2-based model could provide a widely applicable in vitro platform for understanding induction of cancer cell dormancy under hypoxic stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12
JournalJournal of Biological Engineering
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 3 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the University of Minnesota and the Kwanjeong Educational Foundation (H.R.L.). Flow cytometry was performed at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center University Flow Cytometry Resource supported by NIH P30 CA77598.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s).


  • Cancer dormancy
  • Cobalt chloride
  • Hypoxia
  • In vitro model
  • Tumor microenvironment
  • Tumor recurrence


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