Designing and interpreting 4D tumour spheroid experiments

RJ Murphy, AP Browning, G Gunasingh, NK Haass, MJ Simpson

Communications Biology (2022)

Tumour spheroid experiments are routinely used to study cancer progression and treatment. Various and inconsistent experimental designs are used, leading to challenges in interpretation and reproducibility. Using multiple experimental designs, live-dead cell staining, and real-time cell cycle imaging, we measure necrotic and proliferation-inhibited regions in over 1000 4D tumour spheroids (3D space plus cell cycle status). By intentionally varying the initial spheroid size and temporal sampling frequencies across multiple cell lines, we collect an abundance of measurements of internal spheroid structure. These data are difficult to compare and interpret. However, using an objective mathematical modelling framework and statistical identifiability analysis we quantitatively compare experimental designs and identify design choices that produce reliable biological insight. Measurements of internal spheroid structure provide the most insight, whereas varying initial spheroid size and temporal measurement frequency is less important. Our general framework applies to spheroids grown in different conditions and with different cell types.