Three-dimensional cultures of mammary epithelial cells allow for biologically-relevant studies of the development of the mammary gland in rodents and humans under normal and pathological conditions, like carcinogenesis. Under these conditions, mammotropic hormones play significant roles in tissue morphogenesis. Therefore, a system that recreates the normal, hormonally responsive epithelium would be a valuable tool to study the normal state and its transition to carcinogenesis. MCF-12A cells have been claimed to be non-tumorigenic mammary epithelial cells with reported sensitivity to estrogens. In this study, we aimed at characterizing MCF-12A cells for use in a hormone-responsive 3D culture system to determine their usefulness as a tool to identify normal and abnormal microenvironmental cues.
MCF-12A cells were single-cell cloned in order to investigate their heterogeneous makeup. The parental cells were then treated with estradiol to investigate proliferative and transcriptional responses through the estrogen receptor alpha. Finally, parental cells and epithelial-like cell-derived clones were seeded in rat-tail collagen I to profile the morphogenesis of multicellular 3D structures. The resultant structures were then analyzed using unsupervised morphometric analysis.
MCF-12A cells consist of epithelial-like colonies which shed elongated, freely growing cells on the colony’s edges. The cells express E-cadherin as well as mesenchymal vimentin but do not express markers associated with myoepithelial cells or fibroblasts. Treatment with estradiol does not affect either the proliferation rate or the induction of gene expression in MCF-12A cells. Parental MCF-12A cells form acini, solid spheres and elongated branching ducts when grown in rat-tail collagen type I matrix, the geometries and distribution of which are altered following the removal of fibroblast-like cells.
MCF-12A cells are a heterogeneous pseudo-epithelial cell line capable of forming a variety of multicellular structures in 3D culture. We found no indication that the cells display estrogen-responsive characteristics, thus refuting previous studies which reported estrogen responsiveness. We report that MCF-12A cells are not suited for use in studies in which differential behaviors of “normal” and “cancerous” estrogen-responsive cells are to be compared.