Tumors are not merely cancerous cells that undergo mindless proliferation. Rather, they are highly organized and interconnected organ systems. Tumor cells reside in complex microenvironments in which they are subjected to a variety of physical and chemical stimuli that influence cell behavior and ultimately the progression and maintenance of the tumor. As cancer bioengineers, it is our responsibility to create physiologic models that enable accurate understanding of the multi-dimensional structure, organization, and complex relationships in diverse tumor microenvironments. Such models can greatly expedite clinical discovery and translation by closely replicating the physiological conditions while maintaining high tunability and control of extrinsic factors. In this review, we discuss the current models that target key aspects of the tumor microenvironment and their role in cancer progression. In order to address sources of experimental variation and model limitations, we also make recommendations for methods to improve overall physiologic reproducibility, experimental repeatability, and rigor within the field. Improvements can be made through an enhanced emphasis on mathematical modeling, standardized in vitro model characterization, transparent reporting of methodologies, and designing experiments with physiological metrics. Taken together these considerations will enhance the relevance of in vitro tumor models, biological understanding, and accelerate treatment exploration ultimately leading to improved clinical outcomes. Moreover, the development of robust, user-friendly models that integrate important stimuli will allow for the in-depth study of tumors as they undergo progression from non-transformed primary cells to metastatic disease and facilitate translation to a wide variety of biological and clinical studies.
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