Open Access Open Badges Research article

An in vitro co-culture model of esophageal cells identifies ascorbic acid as a modulator of cell competition

Lauren MF Merlo1*, Rachelle E Kosoff2, Kristin L Gardiner1 and Carlo C Maley13

Author Affiliations

1 The Wistar Institute, 3601 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

2 Cell and Molecular Biology Program, University of Pennsylvania, 451 Curie Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

3 Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, Department of Surgery, University of California, San Francisco, 2340 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94115, USA

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:461  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-461

Published: 25 October 2011



The evolutionary dynamics between interacting heterogeneous cell types are fundamental properties of neoplastic progression but can be difficult to measure and quantify. Cancers are heterogeneous mixtures of mutant clones but the direct effect of interactions between these clones is rarely documented. The implicit goal of most preventive interventions is to bias competition in favor of normal cells over neoplastic cells. However, this is rarely explicitly tested. Here we have developed a cell culture competition model to allow for direct observation of the effect of chemopreventive or therapeutic agents on two interacting cell types. We have examined competition between normal and Barrett's esophagus cell lines, in the hopes of identifying a system that could screen for potential chemopreventive agents.


One fluorescently-labeled normal squamous esophageal cell line (EPC2-hTERT) was grown in competition with one of four Barrett's esophagus cell lines (CP-A, CP-B, CP-C, CP-D) under varying conditions and the outcome of competition measured over 14 days by flow cytometry.


We demonstrate that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can help squamous cells outcompete Barrett's cells in this system. We are also able to show that ascorbic acid's boost to the relative fitness of squamous cells was increased in most cases by mimicking the pH conditions of gastrointestinal reflux in the lower esophagus.


This model is able to integrate differential fitness effects on various cell types, allowing us to simultaneously capture effects on interacting cell types without having to perform separate experiments. This model system may be used to screen for new classes of cancer prevention agents designed to modulate the competition between normal and neoplastic cells.