Increasingly, patterned cell culture environments are becoming a relevant technique to study cellular characteristics, and many researchers believe in the need for 3D environments to represent in vitro experiments which better mimic in vivo qualities 1-3. Studies in fields such as cancer research 4, neural engineering 5, cardiac physiology 6, and cell-matrix interaction7,8have shown cell behavior differs substantially between traditional monolayer cultures and 3D constructs.
Hydrogels are used as 3D environments because of their variety, versatility and ability to tailor molecular composition through functionalization 9-12. Numerous techniques exist for creation of constructs as cell-supportive matrices, including electrospinning13, elastomer stamps14, inkjet printing15, additive photopatterning16, static photomask projection-lithography17, and dynamic mask microstereolithography18. Unfortunately, these methods involve multiple production steps and/or equipment not readily adaptable to conventional cell and tissue culture methods. The technique employed in this protocol adapts the latter two methods, using a digital micromirror device (DMD) to create dynamic photomasks for crosslinking geometrically specific poly-(ethylene glycol) (PEG) hydrogels, induced through UV initiated free radical polymerization. The resulting "2.5D" structures provide a constrained 3D environment for neural growth. We employ a dual-hydrogel approach, where PEG serves as a cell-restrictive region supplying structure to an otherwise shapeless but cell-permissive self-assembling gel made from either Puramatrix or agarose. The process is a quick simple one step fabrication which is highly reproducible and easily adapted for use with conventional cell culture methods and substrates.
Whole tissue explants, such as embryonic dorsal root ganglia (DRG), can be incorporated into the dual hydrogel constructs for experimental assays such as neurite outgrowth. Additionally, dissociated cells can be encapsulated in the photocrosslinkable or self polymerizing hydrogel, or selectively adhered to the permeable support membrane using cell-restrictive photopatterning. Using the DMD, we created hydrogel constructs up to ~1mm thick, but thin film (<200 μm) PEG structures were limited by oxygen quenching of the free radical polymerization reaction. We subsequently developed a technique utilizing a layer of oil above the polymerization liquid which allowed thin PEG structure polymerization.
In this protocol, we describe the expeditious creation of 3D hydrogel systems for production of microfabricated neural cell and tissue cultures. The dual hydrogel constructs demonstrated herein represent versatile in vitro models that may prove useful for studies in neuroscience involving cell survival, migration, and/or neurite growth and guidance. Moreover, as the protocol can work for many types of hydrogels and cells, the potential applications are both varied and vast.