A self-assembled 3D model demonstrates how stiffness educates tumor cell phenotypes and therapy resistance in pancreatic cancer

Ying Liu, Babatunde O. Okesola, David Osuna de la Peña, Weiqi Li, Meng Lay Lin, Sara Trabulo, Marianthi Tatari, Rita T. Lawlor, Aldo Scarpa, Wen Wang, Martin Knight, Daniela Loessner, Christopher Heeschen, Alvaro Mata, Oliver M.T. Pearce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is characterized by a dense and stiff extracellular matrix (ECM) associated with tumor progression and therapy resistance. To further the understanding of how stiffening of the tumor microenvironment (TME) contributes to aggressiveness, a three-dimensional (3D) self-assembling hydrogel disease model is developed based on peptide amphiphiles (PAs, PA-E3Y) designed to tailor stiffness. The model displays nanofibrous architectures reminiscent of native TME and enables the study of the invasive behavior of PDAC cells. Enhanced tuneability of stiffness is demonstrated by interacting thermally annealed aqueous solutions of PA-E3Y (PA-E3Yh) with divalent cations to create hydrogels with mechanical properties and ultrastructure similar to native tumor ECM. It is shown that stiffening of PA-E3Yh hydrogels to levels found in PDAC induces ECM deposition, promotes epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), enriches CD133+/CXCR4+ cancer stem cells (CSCs), and subsequently enhances drug resistance. The findings reveal how a stiff 3D environment renders PDAC cells more aggressive and therefore more faithfully recapitulates in vivo tumors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2301941
Number of pages16
JournalAdvanced Healthcare Materials
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 12 Mar 2024


  • 3D disease model
  • drug resistance
  • pancreatic cancer
  • peptide amphiphile
  • self-assembling hydrogels
  • tumor microenvironment
  • tunable stiffness

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