Diffusion of autocrine and paracrine signaling molecules allows cells to communicate in the absence of physical contact. This chemical-based, long-range communication serves crucial roles in tissue function, activation of the immune system, and other physiological functions. Despite its importance, few in vitro methods to study cell-cell signaling through paracrine factors are available today. Here, we report the design and validation of a microfluidic platform that enables (i) soluble molecule-cell and/or (ii) cell-cell paracrine signaling. In the microfluidic platform, multiple cell populations can be introduced into parallel channels. The channels are separated by arrays of posts allowing diffusion of paracrine molecules between cell populations. A computational analysis was performed to aid design of the microfluidic platform. Specifically, it revealed that channel spacing affects both spatial and temporal distribution of signaling molecules, while the initial concentration of the signaling molecule mainly affects the concentration of the signaling molecules excreted by the cells. To validate the microfluidic platform, a model system composed of the signaling molecule lipopolysaccharide, mouse macrophages, and engineered human embryonic kidney cells was introduced into the platform. Upon diffusion from the first channel to the second channel, lipopolysaccharide activates the macrophages which begin to produce TNF-α. The TNF-α diffuses from the second channel to the third channel to stimulate the kidney cells, which express green fluorescent protein (GFP) in response. By increasing the initial lipopolysaccharide concentration an increase in fluorescent response was recorded, demonstrating the ability to quantify intercellular communication between 3D cellular constructs using the microfluidic platform reported here. Overall, these studies provide a detailed analysis on how concentration of the initial signaling molecules, spatiotemporal dynamics, and inter-channel spacing affect intercellular communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number044104
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 10 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biomedical Engineering
  • General Materials Science
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Fluid Flow and Transfer Processes
  • Colloid and Surface Chemistry


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