Microfluidic transwell inserts for generation of tissue culture-friendly gradients in well plates†
Gradients of biochemical molecules play a key role in many physiological processes such as axon growth, tissue morphogenesis, and trans-epithelium nutrient transport, as well as in pathophysiological phenomena such as wound healing, immune response, bacterial invasion, and cancer metastasis. In this paper, we report a microfluidic transwell insert for generating quantifiable concentration gradients in a user-friendly and modular format that is compatible with conventional cell cultures and with tissue explant cultures. The device is simply inserted into a standard 6-well plate, where it hangs self-supported at a distance of ~250 μm above the cell culture surface. The gradient is created by small microflows from the device, through an integrated track-etched porous membrane, into the cell culture well. The microfluidic transwell can deliver stable, quantifiable gradients over a large area with extremely low fluid shear stress to dissociated cells or tissue explants cultured independently on the surface of a 6-well plate. We used finite-element modeling to describe the porous membrane flow and molecular transport and to predict gradients generated by the device. Using the device, we applied a gradient of the chemotactic peptide N-formyl-met-leu-phe (fMLP) to a large population of HL-60 cells (a neutrophil cell line) and directly observed the migration with time-lapse microscopy. On quantification of the chemotactic response with an automated tracking algorithm, we found 74% of the cells moving towards the gradient. Additionally, the modular design and low fluid shear stress made it possible to apply gradients of growth factors and second messengers to mouse retinal explant cultures. With a simplified interface and well-defined gradients, the microfluidic transwell device has potential for broad applications to gradient-sensing biology.