Enhancing the Reliability and Throughput of Neurosphere Culture on Hydrogel Microwell Arrays
The neurosphere assay is the standard retrospective assay to test the self-renewal capability and multipotency of neural stem cells (NSC) in vitro. However, it has recently become clear that not all neurospheres are derived from a NSC and that on conventional cell culture substrates, neurosphere motility may cause frequent neurosphere 'merging' (Singec et al., Nature Methods, 2006; Jessberger et al., Stem Cells, 2007). Combining biomimetic hydrogel matrix technology with microengineering, we developed a microwell array platform on which NSC fate and neurosphere formation can be unequivocally attributed to a single founding cell. Using time-lapse microscopy and retrospective immunostaining, the fate of several hundred single NSCs was quantified. Compared to conventional neurosphere culture methods on plastic dishes, we detected a more than 100% increase in single NSC viability on soft hydrogels. Effective confinement of single proliferating cells to microwells led to neurosphere formation of vastly different sizes, a high percentage of which showed stem cell phenotypes after one week in culture. The reliability and increased throughput of this platform should help to elucidate better the function of sphere-forming stem/progenitor cells independent of their proliferation dynamics.