Engineers put a new ‘twist’ on lab-on-a-chip

Close-up of a cylindrically-shaped microfluidic device with two fluorescent solutions flowing through. Reproduced with permission from Nature Communications.

A leaf works something like a miniature laboratory. While the pores on the leaf surface allow it to channel nutrients in and waste products away from a plant, part of a leaf’s function also lies in its ability to curl and twist. Engineers use polymers to create their own mini-labs, devices called “labs-on-a-chip,” which have numerous applications in science, engineering and medicine. The typical flat, lab on a chip, or microfluidic device, resembles an etched microscopy cover slip with channels and grooves.

But what if you could get that flat lab-on-a-chip to self-assemble into a curve, mimicking the curl, twist or spiral of a leaf? Mustapha Jamal, a PhD student and IGERT fellow from Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, has created a way to make that so.

Jamal is the lead author on “Differentially photo-crosslinked polymers enable self-assembling microfluidics,” published November 8, 2011 in Nature Communications. Along with principle investigator David Gracias, associate professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, and fellow graduate student Aasiyeh Zarafshar, Jamal has developed, for the first time, a method for creating three-dimensional lab-on-a-chip devices that can curl and twist.

The process involves shining ultraviolet (UV) light on a film of a substance called SU-8. Film areas closer to the light source become more heavily crosslinked than layers beneath, which on solvent conditioning creates a stress gradient.

Immersing the film in water causes the film to curl. Immersion in organic solvents like acetone causes the film to flatten. The curling and flattening can be reversed. The result, Jamal said, is the “self-assembly of intricate 3D devices that contain microfluidic channels.” This simple method, he added, can “program 2D polymeric (SU-8) films such that they spontaneously and reversibly curve into intricate 3D geometries including cylinders, cubes and corrugated sheets.”

Members of the Gracias lab have previously created curving and folding polymeric films consisting of two different materials. This new method achieves a stress gradient along the thickness of a single substance. “This provides considerable flexibility in the type and extent of curvature that can be created by varying the intensity and direction of exposure to UV light,” Gracias said.

Gracias explained that the method works with current protocols and materials for fabricating flat microfluidic devices. For example, one can design a 2D film with one type of lab-on-a-chip network, and then use their method to shape it into another geometry, also with microfluidic properties.

Fluorescent image of curved, self-assembled microfluidic device. Reproduced with permission from Nature Communications.

“Since our approach is compatible with planar lithography methods, we can also incorporate optical elements such as split ring resonators that have unique optical features. Alternatively, flexible electronic circuits could be incorporated and channels could be used to transport cooling fluids” Gracias said.

Tissue engineering is among the many important applications for 3D microfluidic devices, Gracias said. “Since many hydrogels can be photopolymerized, we can use the methodology of differential cross-linking to create stress gradients in these materials,” Gracias explained. “We plan to create biodegradable, vascularized tissue scaffolds using this approach.”

Link to the journal article here.

Story by Mary Spiro

 

 

On new lab chip, heart cells display a behavior-guiding ‘nanosense’

Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers, working with colleagues in Korea, have produced a laboratory chip with nanoscopic grooves and ridges capable of growing cardiac tissue that more closely resembles natural heart muscle. Surprisingly, heart cells cultured in this way used a “nanosense” to collect instructions for growth and function solely from the physical patterns on the nanotextured chip and did not require any special chemical cues to steer the tissue development in distinct ways. The scientists say this tool could be used to design new therapies or diagnostic tests for cardiac disease.

Leslie Tung, left, and Andre Levchenko, right, both of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, with Deok-Ho Kim, a doctoral student in Levchenko’s lab, who holds a nanopatterned chip able to cue heart cells to behave like natural heart tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Leslie Tung, left, and Andre Levchenko, right, both of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, with Deok-Ho Kim, a doctoral student in Levchenko’s lab, who holds a nanopatterned chip able to cue heart cells to behave like natural heart tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

The device and experiments using it are described in this week’s online Early Edition issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work, a collaboration with Seoul National University, represents an important advance for researchers who grow cells in the lab to learn more about cardiac disorders and possible remedies.

“Heart muscle cells grown on the smooth surface of a Petri dish would possess some, but never all, of the same physiological characteristics of an actual heart in a living organism,” said Andre Levchenko, an associate professor of biomedical engineering in Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. “That’s because heart muscle cells—cardiomyocytes—take cues from the highly structured extracellular matrix, or ECM, which is a scaffold made of fibers that supports all tissue growth in mammals. These cues from the ECM influence tissue structure and function, but when you grow cells on a smooth surface in the lab, the physical signals can be missing. To address this, we developed a chip whose surface and softness mimic the ECM. The result was lab-grown heart tissue that more closely resembles the real thing.”

Levchenko said that when he and his colleagues examined the natural heart tissue taken from a living animal, they “immediately noticed that the cell layer closest to the extracellular matrix grew in a highly elongated and linear fashion. The cells orient with the direction of the fibers in the matrix, which suggests that ECM fibers give structural or functional instructions to the myocardium, a general term for the heart muscle.” These instructions, Levchenko said, are delivered on the nanoscale—activity at the scale of one-billionth of a meter and a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Levchenko and his Korean colleagues, working with Deok-Ho Kim, a biomedical engineering doctoral student in Levchenko’s lab and the lead author of the PNAS article, developed a two-dimensional hydrogel surface simulating the rigidity, size and shape of the fibers found throughout a natural ECM network. This biofriendly surface made of nontoxic polyethylene glycol displays an array of long ridges resembling the folded pattern of corrugated cardboard. The ridged hydrogel sits upon a glass slide about the size of a U.S. dollar coin. The team made a variety of chips with ridge widths spanning from 150 to 800 nanometers, groove widths ranging from 50 to 800 nanometers and ridge heights varying from 200 to 500 nanometers. This allowed researchers to control the surface texture over more than five orders of magnitude of length.

“We were pleased to find that within just two days the cells became longer and grew along the ridges on the surface of the slide,” Kim said. Furthermore, the researchers found improved coupling between adjacent cells, an arrangement that more closely resembled the architecture found in natural layers of heart muscle tissue. Cells grown on smooth, unpatterned hydrogels, however, remained smaller and less organized, with poorer cell-to-cell coupling between layers. “It was very exciting to observe engineered heart cells behave on a tiny chip in two dimensions like they would in the native heart in three dimensions,” Kim said.

Collaborating with Leslie Tung, a professor of biomedical engineering in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the researchers found that after a few more days of growth, cells on the nanopatterned surface began to conduct electric waves and contract strongly in a specific direction, as intact heart muscle would. “Perhaps most surprisingly, these tissue functions and the structure of the engineered heart tissue could be controlled by simply altering the nanoscale properties of the scaffold. That shows us that heart cells have an acute ‘nanosense,’” Levchenko said.

Johns Hopkins researchers developed this chip to culture heart cells that more closely resemble natural cardiac tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Johns Hopkins researchers developed this chip to culture heart cells that more closely resemble natural cardiac tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

“This nanoscale sensitivity was due to the ability of cells to deform in sticking to the crevices in the nanotextured surface and probably not because of the presence of any molecular cue,” Levchenko said. “These results show that the ECM serves as a powerful cue for cell growth, as well as a supporting structure, and that it can control heart cell function on the nanoscale separately in different parts of this vital organ. By mimicking this ECM property, we could start designing better-engineered heart tissue.”

Looking ahead, Levchenko said that he anticipates that engineering surfaces with similar nanoscale features in three dimensions, instead of just two, could provide an even more potent way to control the structure and function of cultured cardiac tissue.

In addition to Kim, Levchenko and Tung, authors on this paper are postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth A. Lipke and doctoral students Raymond Cheong and Susan Edmonds Thompson, all from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Biomedical Engineering; Michael Delannoy, assistant director of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Microscope Facility Center; and Pilnam Kim and Kahp-Yang Suh, both of Seoul National University.

Tung and Levchenko are affiliated faculty members of the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Thompson is a member of INBT’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship in nanobiotechnology. Funding for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.

Related Web sites

Andre Levchenko’s Lab

Leslie Tung’s Lab

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Story by Mary Spiro

INBT researchers use LEGO to study what happens inside lab-on-a-chip devices

Johns Hopkins engineers are using a popular children’s toy to help them visualize the behavior of particles, cells and molecules in environments too small to see with the naked eye. These researchers are arranging little LEGO pieces shaped like pegs to recreate microscopic activity taking place inside lab-on-a-chip devices at a scale they can more easily observe. These lab-on-a-chip devices, also known as microfluidic arrays, are commonly used to sort tiny samples by size, shape or composition, but the minuscule forces at work at such a small magnitude are difficult to measure. To solve this small problem, the Johns Hopkins engineers decided to think big.

Led by Joelle Frechette and German Drazer, both assistant professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, the team used beads just a few millimeters in diameter, an aquarium filled with goopy glycerol and the LEGO pieces arranged on a LEGO board to unlock mysteries occurring at the micro- or nanoscale level. Their observations could offer clues on how to improve the design and fabrication of lab-on-a-chip technology. Their study concerning this technique was published in the August 14 issue of Physical Review Letters. Both Drazer and Frechette are affiliated faculty members of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

The idea for this project comes from the concept of “dimensional analysis,” in which a process is studied at a different size and time scale while keeping the governing principles the same. [Read more...]

Podcast: Nanotech method to study cell detachment could lead to improved cancer therapies

Peter Searson

Peter Searson

Cancer spreads from organ to organ when cells break free from one site and travel to another. Understanding this process, known as metastasis, is critical for developing ways to prevent the spread and growth of cancer cells. Peter Searson, Reynolds Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering and director of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, led a team of engineers who have developed a method to specifically measure detachment in individual cells.

The method, which uses lab-on-a-chip technology, allows researchers to observe and record the exact point when a cell responds to electrochemical cues in its environment and releases from the surface upon which it is growing. Better knowledge of the biochemistry of cell detachment could point the way to better cancer therapies. In this “Great Ideas” podcast, Elizabeth Tracey, communications associate for the School of Medicine, interviews Searson about this current research.

“…We know that processes like cell detachment are important in cancer metastasis, where cells become detached from tumors…” Peter Searson

Click here to listen:  Great Ideas Podcast: Peter Searson

Related links:

You can watch a video and read more about Searson’s method of studying cell detachment here.

Peter Searson’s INBT profile page.

This podcast was originally posted to the Johns Hopkins University “Great Ideas” web page. To view the original posting, click here.