Partial thermal imidization of polyelectrolyte multilayer cell tethering surfaces (TetherChip) enables efficient cell capture and microtentacle fixation for circulating tumor cell analysis†
The technical challenges of imaging non-adherent tumor cells pose a critical barrier to understanding tumor cell responses to the non-adherent microenvironments of metastasis, like the bloodstream or lymphatics. In this study, we optimized a microfluidic device (TetherChip) engineered to prevent cell adhesion with an optically-clear, thermal-crosslinked polyelectrolyte multilayer nanosurface and a terminal lipid layer that simultaneously tethers the cell membrane for improved spatial immobilization. Thermal imidization of the TetherChip nanosurface on commercially-available microfluidic slides allows up to 98% of tumor cell capture by the lipid tethers. Importantly, time-lapse microscopy demonstrates that unique microtentacles on non-adherent tumor cells are rapidly destroyed during chemical fixation, but tethering microtentacles to the TetherChip surface efficiently preserves microtentacle structure post-fixation and post-blood isolation. TetherChips remain stable for more than 6 months, enabling shipment to distant sites. The broad retention capability of TetherChips allows comparison of multiple tumor cell types, revealing for the first time that carcinomas beyond breast cancer form microtentacles in suspension. Direct integration of TetherChips into the Vortex VTX-1 CTC isolation instrument shows that live CTCs from blood samples are efficiently captured on TetherChips for rapid fixation and same-day immunofluorescence analysis. Highly efficient and unbiased label-free capture of CTCs on a surface that allows rapid chemical fixation also establishes a streamlined clinical workflow to stabilize patient tumor cell samples and minimize analytical variables. While current studies focus primarily on CTC enumeration, this microfluidic device provides a novel platform for functional phenotype testing in CTCs with the ultimate goal of identifying anti-metastatic, patient-specific therapies.