A Farewell to Flat Biology. Three-dimensional Cell Culture Models in Cancer Drug Target Identification and Validation
Härmä, Ville (2012-09-14)
Annales Universitatis Turkuensis D 1028
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Cells of epithelial origin, e.g. from breast and prostate cancers, effectively differentiate into complex multicellular structures when cultured in three-dimensions (3D) instead of conventional two-dimensional (2D) adherent surfaces. The spectrum of different organotypic morphologies is highly dependent on the culture environment that can be either non-adherent or scaffold-based. When embedded in physiological extracellular matrices (ECMs), such as laminin-rich basement membrane extracts, normal epithelial cells differentiate into acinar spheroids reminiscent of glandular ductal structures. Transformed cancer cells, in contrast, typically fail to undergo acinar morphogenic patterns, forming poorly differentiated or invasive multicellular structures. The 3D cancer spheroids are widely accepted to better recapitulate various tumorigenic processes and drug responses. So far, however, 3D models have been employed predominantly in the Academia, whereas the pharmaceutical industry has yet to adopt a more widely and routine use. This is mainly due to poor characterisation of cell models, lack of standardised workflows and high throughput cell culture platforms, and the availability of proper readout and quantification tools. In this thesis, a complete workflow has been established entailing well-characterised 3D cell culture models for prostate cancer, a standardised 3D cell culture routine based on high-throughput-ready platform, automated image acquisition with concomitant morphometric image analysis, and data visualisation, in order to enable large-scale high-content screens. Our integrated suite of software and statistical analysis tools were optimised and validated using a comprehensive panel of prostate cancer cell lines and 3D models. The tools quantify multiple key cancer-relevant morphological features, ranging from cancer cell invasion through multicellular differentiation to growth, and detect dynamic changes both in morphology and function, such as cell death and apoptosis, in response to experimental perturbations including RNA interference and small molecule inhibitors. Our panel of cell lines included many non-transformed and most currently available classic prostate cancer cell lines, which were characterised for their morphogenetic properties in 3D laminin-rich ECM. The phenotypes and gene expression profiles were evaluated concerning their relevance for pre-clinical drug discovery, disease modelling and basic research. In addition, a spontaneous model for invasive transformation was discovered, displaying a highdegree of epithelial plasticity. This plasticity is mediated by an abundant bioactive serum lipid, lysophosphatidic acid (LPA), and its receptor LPAR1. The invasive transformation was caused by abrupt cytoskeletal rearrangement through impaired G protein alpha 12/13 and RhoA/ROCK, and mediated by upregulated adenylyl cyclase/cyclic AMP (cAMP)/protein kinase A, and Rac/ PAK pathways. The spontaneous invasion model tangibly exemplifies the biological relevance of organotypic cell culture models. Overall, this thesis work underlines the power of novel morphometric screening tools in drug discovery.