The behaviour of cells cultured within three-dimensional (3D) structures rather than onto two-dimensional (2D) culture plastic more closely reflects their in vivo responses. Consequently, 3D culture systems are becoming crucial scientific tools in cancer cell research. We used a novel 3D culture concept to assess cell-matrix interactions implicated in carcinogenesis: a synthetic hydrogel matrix equipped with key biomimetic features, namely incorporated cell integrin-binding motifs (e.g. RGD peptides) and the ability of being degraded by cell-secreted proteases (e.g. matrix metalloproteases). As a cell model, we chose epithelial ovarian cancer, an aggressive disease typically diagnosed at an advanced stage when chemoresistance occurs. Both cell lines used (OV-MZ-6, SKOV-3) proliferated similarly in 2D, but not in 3D. Spheroid formation was observed exclusively in 3D when cells were embedded within hydrogels. By exploiting the design flexibility of the hydrogel characteristics, we showed that proliferation in 3D was dependent on cell-integrin engagement and the ability of cells to proteolytically remodel their extracellular microenvironment. Higher survival rates after exposure to the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel were observed in cell spheroids grown in hydrogels (40-60%) compared to cell monolayers in 2D (20%). Thus, 2D evaluation of chemosensitivity may not reflect pathophysiological events seen in patients. Because of the design flexibility of their characteristics and their stability in long-term cultures (28 days), these biomimetic hydrogels represent alternative culture systems for the increasing demand in cancer research for more versatile, physiologically relevant and reproducible 3D matrices. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.