Traditional in vitro models used for the development of anti-cancer drugs are based on the monolayer culture of cells, which has a limited predictivity of in vivo efficacy. A number of cell culture platforms have been developed in recent years to improve predictivity and further to elucidate the mechanisms governing the differing responses observed in vitro versus in vivo. One detrimental aspect of current in vitro models is their inability to decouple the effect of different extrinsic factors on the responsiveness of the cells to drug treatment. Here, we have used an engineered poly(dimethylsiloxane) (PDMS) microwell array as a reductionist approach to study the effect of environmental parameters, independently of each other. It is observed for MCF-7 breast cancer cells, that culture within the three-dimensional (3D) environment of the microwells alone had an effect on the response to Taxol and results in a reduction of cell death in comparison to cells cultured on flat substrates. Additionally the microwells allowed the response of single versus multicell clusters to be differentiated. It was found that the formation of cell-cell contacts alters the drug response, depending on the type of adhesive protein present. Thus, with this microwell platform it is revealed that the presence of cell-cell contacts in addition to the dimensionality and the matrix composition of the environment are important mediators of altered drug responses. In conclusion the microwell array can not only serve as a platform to reveal which parameters of the extracellular environment affect drug response but further the interdependence of these parameters.
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