Local remodeling of synthetic extracellular matrix microenvironments by co-cultured endometrial epithelial and stromal cells enables long-term dynamic physiological function
Mucosal barrier tissues, comprising a layer of tightly-bonded epithelial cells in intimate molecular communication with an underlying matrix-rich stroma containing fibroblasts and immune cells, are prominent targets for drugs against infection, chronic inflammation, and other disease processes. Although human in vitro models of such barriers are needed for mechanistic studies and drug development, differences in extracellular matrix (ECM) needs of epithelial and stromal cells hinder efforts to create such models. Here, using the endometrium as an example mucosal barrier, we describe a synthetic, modular ECM hydrogel suitable for 3D functional co-culture, featuring components that can be remodeled by cells and that respond dynamically to sequester local cell-secreted ECM characteristic of each cell type. The synthetic hydrogel combines peptides with off-the-shelf reagents and is thus accessible to cell biology labs. Specifically, we first identified a single peptide as suitable for initial attachment of both endometrial epithelial and stromal cells using a 2D semi-empirical screen. Then, using a co-culture system of epithelial cells cultured on top of gel-encapsulated stromal cells, we show that inclusion of ECM-binding peptides in the hydrogel, along with the integrin-binding peptide, leads to enhanced accumulation of basement membrane beneath the epithelial layer and more fibrillar collagen matrix assembly by stromal cells over two weeks in culture. Importantly, endometrial co-cultures composed of either cell lines or primary cells displayed hormone-mediated differentiation as assessed by morphological changes and secretory protein production. A multiplex analysis of apical cytokine and growth factor secretion comparing cell lines and primary cells revealed strikingly different patterns, underscoring the importance of using primary cell models in analysis of cell–cell communication networks. In summary, we define a “one-size-fits-all” synthetic ECM that enables long-term, physiologically responsive co-cultures of epithelial and stromal cells in a mucosal barrier format.