3D-3-culture: A tool to unveil macrophage plasticity in the tumour microenvironment

Sofia P. Rebelo, Catarina Pinto, Tatiana R. Martins, Nathalie Harrer, Marta F. Estrada, Pablo Loza-Alvarez, José Cabeçadas, Paula M. Alves, Emilio J. Gualda, Wolfgang Sommergruber, Catarina Brito

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Citations (Scopus)


The tumour microenvironment (TME) shapes disease progression and influences therapeutic response. Most aggressive solid tumours have high levels of myeloid cell infiltration, namely tumour associated macrophages (TAM). Recapitulation of the interaction between the different cellular players of the TME, along with the extracellular matrix (ECM), is critical for understanding the mechanisms underlying disease progression. This particularly holds true for prediction of therapeutic response(s) to standard therapies and interrogation of efficacy of TME-targeting agents. In this work, we explored a culture platform based on alginate microencapsulation and stirred culture systems to develop the 3D-3-culture, which entails the co-culture of tumour cell spheroids of non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC), cancer associated fibroblasts (CAF) and monocytes. We demonstrate that the 3D-3-culture recreates an invasive and immunosuppressive TME, with accumulation of cytokines/chemokines (IL4, IL10, IL13, CCL22, CCL24, CXCL1), ECM elements (collagen type I, IV and fibronectin) and matrix metalloproteinases (MMP1/9), supporting cell migration and promoting cell-cell interactions within the alginate microcapsules. Importantly, we show that both the monocytic cell line THP-1 and peripheral blood-derived monocytes infiltrate the tumour tissue and transpolarize into an M2-like macrophage phenotype expressing CD68, CD163 and CD206, resembling the TAM phenotype in NSCLC. The 3D-3-culture was challenged with chemo- and immunotherapeutic agents and the response to therapy was assessed in each cellular component. Specifically, the macrophage phenotype was modulated upon treatment with the CSF1R inhibitor BLZ945, resulting in a decrease of the M2-like macrophages. In conclusion, the crosstalk between the ECM and tumour, stromal and immune cells in microencapsulated 3D-3-culture promotes the activation of monocytes into TAM, mimicking aggressive tumour stages. The 3D-3-culture constitutes a novel tool to study tumour-immune interaction and macrophage plasticity in response to external stimuli, such as chemotherapeutic and immunomodulatory drugs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-197
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • 3D cancer cell models
  • Alginate microencapsulation
  • Co-culture
  • Immunotherapy
  • Tumour microenvironment
  • Tumour-associated macrophages


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