Since tumor stroma poses as a barrier to achieve efficacy of nanomedicines, it is essential to evaluate nano-chemotherapeutics in stroma-mimicking 3D models that reliably predict their behavior regarding these hurdles limiting efficacy. In this study, we evaluated the effect of paclitaxel-loaded polymeric micelles (PTX-PMCs) and polymeric nanoparticles (PTX-PNPs) in a tumor stroma–mimicking 3D in vitro model. PTX-PMCs (77 nm) based on a amphiphilic block copolymer of mPEG-b-p(HPMAm-Bz) and PTX-PNPs (159 nm) based on poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) were prepared, which had an encapsulation efficiency (EE%) of 81 ± 15% and 45 ± 8%, respectively. 3D homospheroids of mouse 4T1 breast cancer cells and heterospheroids of NIH3T3 fibroblasts and 4T1 (5:1 ratio) were prepared and characterized with high content two-photon microscopy and immunostaining. Data showed an induction of epithelial-mesenchymal transition (α-SMA) in both homo- and heterospheroids, while ECM (collagen) deposition only in heterospheroids. Two-photon imaging revealed that both fluorescently labeled PMCs and PNPs penetrated into the core of homospheroids and only PMCs penetrated into heterospheroids. Furthermore, PTX-PMCs, PTX-PNPs, and free PTX induced cytotoxicity in tumor cells and fibroblasts grown as monolayer, but these effects were substantially reduced in 3D models, in particular in heterospheroids. Gene expression analysis showed that heterospheroids had a significant increase of drug resistance markers (Bcl2, Abgc2) compared to 2D or 3D monocultures. Altogether, this study shows that the efficacy of nanotherapeutics is challenged by stroma-induced poor penetration and development of resistant phenotype. Therefore, this tumor stroma–mimicking 3D model can provide an excellent platform to study penetration and effects of nanotherapeutics before in vivo studies.
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