Media Releases

3D microgels “on-demand” offer new potential for cell research, the future of personalized medicine

February 25, 2014

TORONTO, ON — Stars, dia­monds, cir­cles.

Rather than your aver­age bowl of Lucky Charms, these are three-dimen­sion­al cell cul­tures gen­er­at­ed by an excit­ing new dig­i­tal microflu­idics plat­form, the results of which have been pub­lished in Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions this week by researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. The tool, which can be used to study cells in cost-effi­cient, three-dimen­sion­al micro­gels, may hold the key to per­son­al­ized med­i­cine appli­ca­tions in the future.

“We already know that the microen­vi­ron­ment can great­ly influ­ence cell fate,” says Irwin A. Eydel­nant, recent doc­tor­al grad­u­ate from IBBME and first author of the pub­li­ca­tion. “The impor­tant part of this study is that we’ve devel­oped a tool that will allow us to inves­ti­gate the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of cells to their 3D envi­ron­ment.”

“Every­one wants to do three-dimen­sion­al (3D) cell cul­ture,” explains Aaron Wheel­er, Pro­fes­sor and Cana­da Research Chair in Bio­an­a­lyt­i­cal Chem­istry at the Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME), the Depart­ment of Chem­istry, and the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bio­mol­e­c­u­lar Research (DCCBR) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. “Cells grown in this man­ner share much more in com­mon with liv­ing sys­tems than the stan­dard two-dimen­sion­al (2D) cell cul­ture for­mat,” says Wheel­er, cor­re­spond­ing author of the study.

More nat­u­ral­is­tic, 3D cell cul­tures are a chal­lenge to grow. “The reagents are expen­sive, the mate­ri­als are incon­ve­nient for automa­tion, and 3D matri­ces break down upon repeat­ed han­dling,” explains Wheel­er, who was named an Inven­tor of the Year by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to in 2012.

Eydel­nant was able to address these dif­fi­cul­ties by adapt­ing a dig­i­tal microflu­idics plat­form first cre­at­ed in the Wheel­er lab. Cells, caught up in a hydro­gel mate­r­i­al, are gen­tly flowed across a small field that, on a screen, looks much like a tiny chess­board. The cells are strate­gi­cal­ly manip­u­lat­ed by a small elec­tric field across a cutout shape on the top plate of the sys­tem, made from indi­um in oxide, and become fixed.

“When we grew kid­ney cells in these micro­gels, the cul­tures formed hol­low sphere struc­tures resem­bling prim­i­tive kid­neys with­in four or five days,” Eydel­nant claims.

The tool allows a great deal of flex­i­bil­i­ty in terms of the num­ber of dif­fer­ent kinds of cells that can be incor­po­rat­ed into the shapes, as well as the shapes and size of the microen­vi­ron­ments: whim­si­cal, like the stars, dia­mond and cir­cles of Lucky Charms, or designed to mim­ic liv­ing 3D nich­es, offer­ing researchers a glimpse into how these fac­tors all affect cell fate deci­sions.

What’s more, accord­ing to Eydel­nant, the plat­form per­mits researchers to run, “32 exper­i­ments at the same time, auto­mat­i­cal­ly, and all on some­thing the size of a cred­it card.”

“[This new] sys­tem allows for hands-free assem­bly of sub-microlitre, three-dimen­sion­al micro­gels. Each gel is indi­vid­u­al­ly address­able, flu­id exchange is gen­tler than macro-scale alter­na­tives, and reagent use is reduced more than 100-fold,” Wheel­er says.

“We believe that this new tool will make 3D cell cul­ture a more attrac­tive and acces­si­ble for­mat for cell biol­o­gy research,” he adds.

Although the researchers can fore­see numer­ous pos­si­ble appli­ca­tions for this plat­form, the team is “par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed” about its poten­tial for per­son­al­ized med­i­cine.

Wheel­er argues, “We may be able to col­lect small tis­sue sam­ples from patients, dis­trib­ute them into 3D gels on dig­i­tal microflu­idic devices, and screen for con­di­tions to iden­ti­fy indi­vid­u­al­ly tai­lored ther­a­pies. This is in the ‘dream’ stages for now, but we think the meth­ods described here will be use­ful for these types of appli­ca­tions in the future.”


The Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als and Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME) is a cut­ting-edge inter­dis­ci­pli­nary unit sit­u­at­ed between three Fac­ul­ties at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to: Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing, Den­tistry and Med­i­cine. The Insti­tute pur­sues research in four areas: neur­al, sen­so­ry sys­tems and reha­bil­i­ta­tion engi­neer­ing; bio­ma­te­ri­als, tis­sue engi­neer­ing and regen­er­a­tive med­i­cine; mol­e­c­u­lar imag­ing and bio­med­ical nan­otech­nol­o­gy; med­ical devices and clin­i­cal tech­nolo­gies.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Erin Vol­lick, Senior Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Media & Alum­ni Rela­tions Offi­cer
Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als and Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME), Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: (416) 946‑8019