Cancer research has traditionally relied on two-dimensional (2D) cell culture, focusing mainly on cancer cells and their abnormal genetics. However, over the past decade, tumors have been accepted as complex tissues rather than a homogenous mass of proliferating cells. Consequently, cancer cells’ behavior can only be deciphered considering the contribution of the cells existing in the tumor stroma as well as its complex microenvironment. Since the tumor microenvironment plays a critical role in tumorigenesis, it is widely accepted that culturing cells in three-dimensional (3D) scaffolds, which mimic the extracellular matrix, represents a more realistic scenario. In the present work, an in vitro 3D co-culture system based on the self-assembling peptide scaffold RAD16-I (SAPS RAD16-I) was developed as a cancer model. For that, PANC-1 cells were injected into a RAD16-I peptide scaffold containing fibroblasts, resulting in a 3D system where cancer cells were localized in a defined area within a stromal cells matrix. With this system, we were able to study the effect of three well-known pharmaceutical drugs (Gemcitabine, 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU), and 4-Methylumbelliferone (4-MU)) in a 3D context in terms of cell proliferation and survival. Moreover, we have demonstrated that the anti-cancer effect of the tested compounds can be qualitatively and quantitatively evaluated on the developed 3D co-culture system. Experimental results showed that Gemcitabine and 5-FU prevented PANC-1 cell proliferation but had a high cytotoxic effect on fibroblasts as well. 4-MU had a subtle effect on PANC-1 cells but caused high cell death on fibroblasts.
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