Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed a microfluidic approach to trap individual cells within a hydrogel material that can be tuned to match the physiological conditions of the body, according to a study published this week in Nature Materials.
Previous work has shown hydrogels are effective materials for manipulating cells and tissues because of their biocompatibility, but only with large groups of cells, like the alginate hydrogel capsules filled with pancreatic islet cells that are implanted into diabetic patients. However, as the team acknowledges, these capsules eventually become surrounded by thick scar tissue and are rendered useless.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of work to try and understand how biomaterials can determine cell function and fate, but the majority of that work has been done in populations of cells,” corresponding author David Mooney said in prepared remarks. “With this work, we take everything we have learned and take it down to the single cell level, enabling us to influence cell behavior on a whole different scale.”
The “microgels” that the team created using their microfluidic can be delivered intravenously and thin layers between the encapsulated cells and the body’s environment means that cell therapies can get to work faster.
The researchers also suggest that microgel-encapsulated cells could be infused with anti-inflammatory factors, which could prevent the body’s own immune system from reacting against them immediately after injection.
“This is an exciting and important extension of cell-based biomaterials to the level of single cells, which can then serve both as a precise building block for larger cell structures and as a means of investigating the behavior at the level of single cells, providing unprecedented insight into cell function and properties,” co-author David Weitz said.
“Mini tissues could plausibly be formed from meticulous cell-by-cell construction, giving us scrupulous control over the composition of engineered tissues that has not been yet been possible,” co-author Jae-Won Shin added.
“Enabling microgel encapsulation of single cells should allow much better integration and vascularization of implanted cellular therapies, for example in treatment of diabetes or Parkinson’s disease, and provide new ways to study and control behavior of individual cells both inside and outside our bodies,” Wyss Institute founding director Dr. Donald Ingber said.