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Background: Our current understanding of how the unique tumour microenvironment influences the efficacy of gene delivery is limited. The current investigation systematically examines the efficiency of several non-viral gene transfer agents to transfect multicellular tumour spheroids (MCTS), an in vitro model that displays a faithful three-dimensional (3D) representation of solid tumour tissue. Methods: Using a luciferase reporter assay, gene transfer to MCTS was optimised for 22 kDa linear and 25 kDa branched polyethyleneimine (PEI), the cationic hpids Lipofectamine™ and DCChol: DOPE, and the physical approach of tissue electroporation. Confocal microscopy was used to take optical tissue slices to identify the tissue localisation of green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter gene expression and the distribution of fluorescently labelled complexes. A MCTS model of quiescent tumour regions was used to establish the influence of cellular proliferation status on gene transfer efficiency. Results: Of the polyplexes tested, 22 kDa linear PEI provided optimal gene delivery, with gene expression peaking at 46 h. Despite being the optimal vector tested, PEI-mediated transfection was limited to cells at the MCTS periphery. Using fluorescent PEI, it was found that complexes could only penetrate the outer 3-5 proliferating cell layers of the MCTS, sparing the deeper quiescent cells. Gene delivery in an MCTS model comprised entirely of quiescent cells demonstrated that in addition to being inaccessible to the vector, quiescent tumour regions are inherently less susceptible to PEI-mediated transfection than proliferating regions. This 'resistance' to transfection observed in quiescent cells was overcome through the use of electroporation. Despite the improved efficacy of electroporation in quiescent tissue, the gene expression was still confined to the outer regions of MCTS. The results suggest that limited access to central regions of an MCTS remain a significant barrier to gene delivery. Conclusions: This data provides new insights into tumour-specific factors affecting non-viral gene transfer and highlights the difficulties in delivering genes to avascular tumour regions. The MCTS model is a useful system for the initial screening of future gene therapy strategies for solid tumours. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Gene Medicine

Publication Date





1160 - 1170