Quantifying nanotherapeutic penetration using a hydrogel-based microsystem as a new 3D in vitro platform†
The huge gap between 2D in vitro assays used for drug screening and the in vivo 3D physiological environment hampered reliable predictions for the route and accumulation of nanotherapeutics in vivo. For such nanotherapeutics, multi-cellular tumour spheroids (MCTS) are emerging as a good alternative in vitro model. However, the classical approaches to produce MCTS suffer from low yield, slow process, difficulties in MCTS manipulation and compatibility with high-magnification fluorescence optical microscopy. On the other hand, spheroid-on-chip set-ups developed so far require a practical knowledge of microfluidics difficult to transfer to a cell biology laboratory. We present here a simple yet highly flexible 3D model microsystem consisting of agarose-based microwells. Fully compatible with the multi-well plate format conventionally used in cell biology, our simple process enables the formation of hundreds of reproducible spheroids in a single pipetting. Immunostaining and fluorescence imaging including live high-resolution optical microscopy can be performed in situ, with no manipulation of spheroids. As a proof of principle of the relevance of such an in vitro platform for nanotherapeutic evaluation, this study investigates the kinetics and localisation of nanoparticles within colorectal cancer MCTS cells (HCT-116). The nanoparticles chosen are sub-5 nm ultrasmall nanoparticles made of polysiloxane and gadolinium chelates that can be visualized in MRI (AGuIX®, currently implicated in clinical trials as effective radiosensitizers for radiotherapy) and confocal microscopy after addition of Cy5.5. We show that the amount of AGuIX® nanoparticles within cells is largely different in 2D and 3D. Using our flexible agarose-based microsystems, we are able to resolve spatially and temporally the penetration and distribution of AGuIX® nanoparticles within MCTS. The nanoparticles are first found in both extracellular and intracellular space of MCTS. While the extracellular part is washed away after a few days, we evidenced intracellular localisation of AGuIX®, mainly within the lysosomal compartment, but also occasionally within mitochondria. Hence, our agarose-based microsystem appears as a promising 3D in vitro user-friendly platform for investigation of nanotherapeutic transport, ahead of in vivo studies.