A novel three-dimensional cell culture method enhances antiviral drug screening in primary human cells

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Gefitinib is a specific inhibitor of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and FDA approved for treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. In a previous study we could show the in vitro efficacy of gefitinib for treatment of poxvirus infections in monolayer (2D) cultivated cell lines. Permanent cell lines and 2D cultures, however, are known to be rather unphysiological; therefore it is difficult to predict whether determined effective concentrations or the drug efficacy per se are transferable to the in vivo situation. 3D cell cultures, which meanwhile are widely distributed across all fields of research, are a promising tool for more predictive in vitro investigations of antiviral compounds. In this study the spreading of cowpox virus and the antiviral efficacy of gefitinib were analyzed in primary human keratinocytes (NHEK) grown in a novel 3D extracellular matrix-based cell culture model and compared to the respective monolayer culture. 3D-cultivated NHEK grew in a polarized and thus a more physiological manner with altered morphology and close cell–cell contact. Infected cultures showed a strongly elevated sensitivity towards gefitinib. EGFR phosphorylation, cell proliferation, and virus replication were significantly reduced in 3D cultures at gefitinib concentrations which were at least 100-fold lower than those in monolayer cultures and well below the level of cytotoxicity. Our newly established 3D cell culture model with primary human cells is an easy-to-handle alternative to conventional monolayer cell cultures and previously described more complex 3D cell culture systems. It can easily be adapted to other cell types and a broad spectrum of viruses for antiviral drug screening and many other aspects of virus research under more in vivo-like conditions. In consequence, it may contribute to a more targeted realization of necessary in vivo experiments.HighlightsOrthopoxvirus infection was studied in an innovative and easy-to-handle 3D cell culture system with primary human cells.Comparison of primary human cells in 3D and monolayer culture revealed significant differences in cell physiology.Expression of the cowpox virus EGF homologue CGF was more than 10-fold increased in 3D cell culture infection.Cowpox virus infection strongly increased EGFR phosphorylation in infected NHEK independent of the cell culture model.CPXV infection in 3D cultured NHEK was 50-fold more sensitive to antiviral treatment with the EGFR inhibitor gefitinib.

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