Tumor Microenvironment and Hydrogel-Based 3D Cancer Models for In Vitro Testing Immunotherapies

Immunotherapies are emerging as promising strategies to cure cancer and extend patients’ survival. Efforts should be focused, however, on the development of preclinical tools better able to predict the therapeutic benefits in individual patients. In this context, the availability of reliable preclinical models capable of recapitulating the tumor milieu while overcoming the limitations of traditional systems is mandatory. Here, we review the tumor immune responses, escape mechanisms, and the most recent 3D biomaterial-based cancer in vitro models useful for investigating the effects of the different immunotherapeutic approaches. The main challenges and possible future trends are also discussed.



In recent years, immunotherapy has emerged as a promising novel therapeutic strategy for cancer treatment. In a relevant percentage of patients, however, clinical benefits are lower than expected, pushing researchers to deeply analyze the immune responses against tumors and find more reliable and efficient tools to predict the individual response to therapy. Novel tissue engineering strategies can be adopted to realize in vitro fully humanized matrix-based models, as a compromise between standard two-dimensional (2D) cell cultures and animal tests, which are costly and hardly usable in personalized medicine. In this review, we describe the main mechanisms allowing cancer cells to escape the immune surveillance, which may play a significant role in the failure of immunotherapies. In particular, we discuss the role of the tumor microenvironment (TME) in the establishment of a milieu that greatly favors cancer malignant progression and impact on the interactions with immune cells. Then, we present an overview of the recent in vitro engineered preclinical three-dimensional (3D) models that have been adopted to resemble the interplays between cancer and immune cells and for testing current therapies and immunotherapeutic approaches.

Specifically, we focus on 3D hydrogel-based tools based on different types of polymers, discussing the suitability of each of them in reproducing the TME key features based on their intrinsic or tunable characteristics. Finally, we introduce the possibility to combine the 3D models with technological fluid dynamics platforms, reproducing the dynamic complex interactions between tumor cells and immune effectors migrated in situ via the systemic circulation, pointing out the challenges that still have to be overcome for setting more predictive preclinical assays.

Chiara Vitale, Monica Marzagalli, Silvia Scaglione, Alessandra Dondero, Cristina Bottino and Roberta Castriconi
Tumor Microenvironment and Hydrogel-Based 3D Cancer Models for In Vitro Testing Immunotherapies
Cancers 2022