Probing cell–cell communication with microfluidic devices
Intercellular communication is a mechanism that regulates critical events during embryogenesis and coordinates signalling within differentiated tissues, such as the nervous and cardiovascular systems. To perform specialized activities, these tissues utilize the rapid exchange of signals among networks that, while are composed of different cell types, are nevertheless functionally coupled. Errors in cellular communication can lead to varied deleterious effects such as degenerative and autoimmune diseases. However, the intercellular communication network is extremely complex in multicellular organisms making isolation of the functional unit and study of basic mechanisms technically challenging. New experimental methods to examine mechanisms of intercellular communication among cultured cells could provide insight into physiological and pathological processes alike. Recent developments in microfluidic technology allow miniaturized and integrated devices to perform intercellular communication experiments on-chip. Microfluidics have many advantages, including the ability to replicate in vitro the chemical, mechanical, and physical cellular microenvironment of tissues with precise spatial and temporal control combined with dynamic characterization, high throughput, scalability and reproducibility. In this Focus article, we highlight some of the recent work and advances in the application of microfluidics to the study of mammalian intercellular communication with particular emphasis on cell contact and soluble factor mediated communication. In addition, we provide some insights into likely direction of the future developments in this field.