Micro-scaffold array chip for upgrading cell-based high-throughput drug testing to 3D using benchtop equipment†
Cell-based high throughput drug screening accelerates the pace of drug discovery which is routinely operated on planar high-density multi-well plates with sophisticated robotic liquid-dispensing systems for cell seeding and drug administration. Considerable efforts have been made to upgrade in vitro cellular models from 2D to a more biomimetic 3D configuration. For instance, in anti-cancer drug screening, tumor spheroids are increasingly applied as a gold-standard 3D model exhibiting cellular behaviors and drug responses distinguishable from the 2D counterpart. However, translation of spheroids to high throughput drug screening is challenging since pre-formation of spheroids and subsequent translocation to multi-well plates for drug testing are usually uncontrollable and time/reagent consuming and cell loss is inevitable during medium exchange for drug testing. Here we present an off-the-shelf micro-scaffold array chip which enables high throughput 3D cell culture, drug administration and quantitative in situ assays entirely on the same chip. The sponge-like micro-scaffolds functioned both as absorbents to realize parallel auto-loading of cells or drugs and as barriers to prevent cell loss during medium exchange via centrifugation. Rapid manual loading of cell suspensions or drugs into the 96 isolated micro-scaffolds on the chip was achieved in the timescale of several seconds, meanwhile with total medium consumption reduced to the order of microliters. Proof of concept demonstration of drug cytotoxicity testing was performed on multiple cancer cells using common benchtop equipment, making it accessible to most biomedical labs with basic cell culture setups. Higher cellular drug resistance was constantly obtained with this platform compared to the planar cultures, which was partially attributed to the malignant phenotype of cancer cells yielded by enhanced cell–matrix interactions in the micro-scaffolds. Interestingly, the high drug resistance of 3D cultured cells in the micro-scaffold was shown to be density-independent in contrast to the density-dependent drug response for 2D cultured cells, indicating intrinsic differences between the two culture models. This platform is expected to facilitate upgrade of the current cell-based high throughput drug testing to the 3D level and be widely applicable across various disciplines.