Flow-based pipeline for systematic modulation and analysis of 3D tumor microenvironments

Cheri Y. Li, David K. Wood, Joanne H. Huang, Sangeeta N. Bhatia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The cancer microenvironment, which incorporates interactions with stromal cells, extracellular matrix (ECM), and other tumor cells in a 3-dimensional (3D) context, has been implicated in every stage of cancer development, including growth of the primary tumor, metastatic spread, and response to treatment. Our understanding of the tumor microenvironment and our ability to develop new therapies would greatly benefit from tools that allow us to systematically probe microenvironmental cues within a 3D context. Here, we leveraged recent advances in microfluidic technology to develop a platform for high-throughput fabrication of tunable cellular microniches ("microtissues") that allow us to probe tumor cell response to a range of microenvironmental cues, including ECM, soluble factors, and stromal cells, all in 3D. We further combine this tunable microniche platform with rapid, flow-based population level analysis (n > 500), which permits analysis and sorting of microtissue populations both pre- and post-culture by a range of parameters, including proliferation and homotypic or heterotypic cell density. We used this platform to demonstrate differential responses of lung adenocarcinoma cells to a selection of ECM molecules and soluble factors. The cells exhibited enhanced or reduced proliferation when encapsulated in fibronectin- or collagen-1-containing microtissues, respectively, and they showed reduced proliferation in the presence of TGF-β, an effect that we did not observe in monolayer culture. We also measured tumor cell response to a panel of drug targets and found, in contrast to monolayer culture, specific sensitivity of tumor cells to TGFβR2 inhibitors, implying that TGF-β has an anti-proliferative affect that is unique to the 3D context and that this effect is mediated by TGFβR2. These findings highlight the importance of the microenvironmental context in therapeutic development and that the platform we present here allows the high-throughput study of tumor response to drugs as well as basic tumor biology in well-defined microenvironmental niches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1969-1978
Number of pages10
JournalLab on a chip
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2013


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