According to the World Health Organization, cancer is one of the leading causes of death around the world. Although early diagnostics using biomarkers and improved treatments with targeted therapy have reduced the rate of cancer related mortalities, there remain many unknowns regarding the contributions of the tumor microenvironment to cancer progression and therapeutic resistance. The tumor microenvironment plays a significant role by manipulating the progression of cancer cells through biochemical and biophysical signals from the surrounding stromal cells along with the extracellular matrix. As such, there is a critical need to understand how the tumor microenvironment influences the molecular mechanisms underlying cancer metastasis to facilitate the discovery of better therapies. This thesis described the development of microfluidic technologies to study the interplay of cancer cells with their surrounding microenvironment. The microfluidic model was used to assess how exposure to chemoattractant, epidermal growth factor (EGF), impacted 3D breast cancer cell invasion and enhanced cell motility speed was noted in the presence of EGF validating physiological cell behavior. Additionally, breast cancer and patient-derived cancer-associated fibroblast (CAF) cells were co-cultured to study cell-cell crosstalk and how it affected cancer invasion. GPNMB was identified as a novel gene of interest and it was shown that CAFs enhanced breast cancer invasion by up-regulating the expression of GPNMB on breast cancer cells resulting in increased migration speed. Lastly, this thesis described the design, biological validation, and use of this microfluidic platform as a new in vitro 3D organotypic model to study mechanisms of glioma stem cell (GSC) invasion in the context of a vascular niche. It was confirmed that CXCL12-CXCR4 signaling is involved in promoting GSC invasion in a 3D vascular microenvironment, while also demonstrating the effectiveness of the microfluidic as a drug screening assay. Taken together, the broader impacts of the microfluidic model developed in this dissertation include, a possible alternative platform to animal testing that is focused on mimicking human physiology, a potential ex vivo platform using patient-derived cells for studying the interplay of cancer cells with its surrounding microenvironment, and development of future therapeutic strategies tailored toward disrupting key molecular pathways involved in regulatory mechanisms of cancer invasion.
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