Dynamic and influential interaction of cancer cells with normal epithelial cells in 3D culture

Laura Ivers, Brendan Cummings, Funke Owolabi, Katarzyna Welzel, Rut Klinger, Sayaka Saitoh, Darran O'Connor, Yasuyuki Fujita, Dimitri Scholz, Nobue Itasaki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)
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The cancer microenvironment has a strong impact on the growth and dynamics of cancer cells. Conventional 2D culture systems, however, do not reflect in vivo conditions, impeding detailed studies of cancer cell dynamics. This work aims to establish a method to reveal the interaction of cancer and normal epithelial cells using 3D time-lapse.


GFP-labelled breast cancer cells, MDA-MB-231, were co-cultured with mCherry-labelled non-cancerous epithelial cells, MDCK, in a gel matrix. In the 3D culture, the epithelial cells establish a spherical morphology (epithelial sphere) thus providing cancer cells with accessibility to the basal surface of epithelia, similar to the in vivo condition. Cell movement was monitored using time-lapse analyses. Ultrastructural, immunocytochemical and protein expression analyses were also performed following the time-lapse study.


In contrast to the 2D culture system, whereby most MDA-MB-231 cells exhibit spindle-shaped morphology as single cells, in the 3D culture the MDA-MB-231 cells were found to be single cells or else formed aggregates, both of which were motile. The single MDA-MB-231 cells exhibited both round and spindle shapes, with dynamic changes from one shape to the other, visible within a matter of hours. When co-cultured with epithelial cells, the MDA-MB-231 cells displayed a strong attraction to the epithelial spheres, and proceeded to surround and engulf the epithelial cell mass. The surrounded epithelial cells were eventually destroyed, becoming debris, and were taken into the MDA-MB-231 cells. However, when there was a relatively large population of normal epithelial cells, the MDA-MB-231 cells did not engulf the epithelial spheres effectively, despite repeated contacts. MDA-MB-231 cells co-cultured with a large number of normal epithelial cells showed reduced expression of monocarboxylate transporter-1, suggesting a change in the cell metabolism. A decreased level of gelatin-digesting ability as well as reduced production of matrix metaroproteinase-2 was also observed.


This culture method is a powerful technique to investigate cancer cell dynamics and cellular changes in response to the microenvironment. The method can be useful for various aspects such as; different combinations of cancer and non-cancer cell types, addressing the organ-specific affinity of cancer cells to host cells, and monitoring the cellular response to anti-cancer drugs.
Original languageEnglish
Article number108
Number of pages16
JournalCancer Cell International
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2014


  • 3D culture
  • Cancer microenvironment
  • Cell-cell interaction
  • Time-lapse movie
  • MDA-MB-231


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