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Abstract

Biomolecular signaling is of utmost importance in governing many biological processes such as morphogenesis during tissue development where biomolecules regulate key cell-fate decisions. In vivo, these factors are presented in a spatiotemporally tightly controlled fashion and in the context of a soft and hydrated microenvironment. Although state-of-the-art microfluidic technologies allow precise biomolecule delivery in time and space, long-term (stem) cell culture at the micro- scale is far from ideal due to issues related to medium evaporation, limited space for cell growth, shear stress and a lack of cell-instructive microenvironments that might adversely impact cell-fate. As a result, microfluidic cell culture systems are not yet suitable to unravel complex multicellular phenomena. This may explain why they are not yet widely used in biology laboratories. Consequently, the overall goal of this thesis was to overcome this technology gap by developing next generation microfluidics through a combination of microfabrication and smart biomaterials. A special emphasis was placed on decoupling biomolecule presentation at micro-scale from macro-scale cell culture in order to enable long-term stem cell culture within user-friendly multiwell plate formats. First, a novel microfluidic concept was invented to rapidly immobilize linear protein gradients on the surface of poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG)-based hydrogels whose biophysical properties are reminiscent of natural extracellular matrices. This method allows efficient capture of steady-state gradients of tagged proteins (e.g. using Fc or biotin tags) in just a few minutes on engineered hydrogels that display the corresponding auxiliary proteins (e.g. ProteinA or NeutrAvidin). The selectivity and orthogonality of the chosen binding schemes enables the formation of parallel and orthogonal overlapping gradients of multiple proteins, which is impossible using existing platforms. After patterning, the microfluidic chip can be readily removed from the gel for cell culture applications. Using quantitative single-cell time-lapse microscopy, this platform was validated here by probing the effect of fibronectin concentration on the directionality and speed of cell migration. Next, the resolution, flexibility and throughput of the protein patterning on hydrogels was substantially enhanced by the introduction of hydrodynamic flow focusing, that is, the generation of user-defined patterns by spatially controlled step- wise deposition of biomolecules. To this end, a microfluidic device was conceived that enabled the generation of arrays of parallel and crossed overlapping gradients. Application of the platform to generate gradients of immobilized leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) showed an influence of the LIF concentration on ESC self-renewal. This platform should be useful to systematically probe the effect of biomolecule dose, singly or in combinations, on stem cell behavior in vitro; however, it lacks the ability to dynamically vary the presentation of biomolecules that might be crucial to control stem cell fate towards establishing functional in vitro tissue models. To address this limitation, in the last part of the thesis work a hydrogel-based microfluidic chip was developed that decouples macro-scale cell culture on the gel surface from the precise spatiotemporal biomolecule delivery at the micro-scale, i.e. through the gel layer. The hydrogel chip, used here as a simple insert that is compatible with conventional multiwell plate formats, was optimized to support long- term ESC maintenance in both adherent format and as uniformly sized ESC aggregates termed embryoid bodies. The platform was successfully used for the spatially controlled neuronal commitment of ESC via delivery of gradients of the morphogen retinoic acid. Taken together, in this thesis several innovative microengineered cell culture platforms are presented which enable, perhaps for the first time, the long-term culture and manipulation of stem cell fate at the micro-scale. These systems should be useful to systematically probe in vitro the effect of biomolecule dose and delivery dynamics on stem cell behavior, ultimately facilitating the development of complex in vitro tissue models.

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