Nanotheranostics 2020; 4(1):26-39. doi:10.7150/ntno.38092

Research Paper

FGF2 engineered SPIONs attenuate tumor stroma and potentiate the effect of chemotherapy in 3D heterospheroidal model of pancreatic tumor

Deby Fajar Mardhian, Aggelos Vrynas, Gert Storm, Ruchi Bansal*, Jai Prakash*✉

Targeted Therapeutics, Department of Biomaterials Science and Technology, Technical Medical Centre, Faculty of Science and technology, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands.
*Authors contributed equally to this work

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Mardhian DF, Vrynas A, Storm G, Bansal R, Prakash J. FGF2 engineered SPIONs attenuate tumor stroma and potentiate the effect of chemotherapy in 3D heterospheroidal model of pancreatic tumor. Nanotheranostics 2020; 4(1):26-39. doi:10.7150/ntno.38092. Available from

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Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), characterized with abundant tumor stroma, is a highly malignant tumor with poor prognosis. The tumor stroma largely consists of cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and extracellular matrix (ECM), and is known to promote tumor growth and progression as well as acts as a barrier to chemotherapy. Inhibition of tumor stroma is highly crucial to induce the effect of chemotherapy. In this study, we delivered fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) to human pancreatic stellate cells (hPSCs), the precursors of CAFs, using superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs). FGF2 was covalently conjugated to functionalized PEGylated dextran-coated SPIONs. FGF2-SPIONs significantly reduced TGF-β induced hPSCs differentiation (α-SMA and collagen-1 expression) by inhibiting pSmad2/3 signaling and inducing ERK1/2 activity, as shown with western blot analysis. Then, we established a stroma-rich self-assembling 3D heterospheroid model by co-culturing PANC-1 and hPSCs in 3D environment. We found that FGF2-SPIONs treatment alone inhibited the tumor stroma-induced spheroid growth. In addition, they also potentiated the effect of gemcitabine, as shown by measuring the spheroid size and ATP content. These effects were attributed to the reduced expression of the hPSC activation and differentiation marker, α-SMA. Furthermore, to demonstrate an application of SPIONs, we applied an external magnetic field to spheroids while incubated with FGF2-SPIONs. This resulted in an enhanced effect of gemcitabine in our 3D model. In conclusion, this study presents a novel approach to target FGF2 to tumor stroma using SPIONs and thereby enhancing the effect of gemcitabine as demonstrated in the complex 3D tumor spheroid model.

Keywords: fibroblast growth factor 2, superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles, pancreatic stellate cells, cancer-associated fibroblasts, pancreatic cancer