Dielectric Elastomer Actuator for Mechanical Loading of 2D Cell Cultures
We demonstrate the use of dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) for mechanical stimulation of cells in vitro. The development of living tissues is regulated by their mechanical environment through the modification of fundamental cellular functions such as proliferation, differentiation and gene expression. Mechanical cues have been linked to numerous pathological conditions, and progress in cellular mechanobiology could lead to better diagnosis and treatments of diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancers. Research in this field heavily relies on in vitro models due to the high complexity of the in vivo environment. Current in vitro models however build on bulky and often complex sets of mechanical motors or pneumatic systems. In this work we present an alternative approach based on DEAs, a class of soft actuators capable of large deformation (>100%) and fast response time (<1 ms). The key advantage of DEAs is that they can be integrated within the culture substrate, therefore providing a very compact solution. Here we present a DEA-based deformable bioreactor which can generate up to 35 % uniaxial tensile strain, and is compatible with standard cell culture protocols. Our transparent device also includes a static control area, and enables real-time optical monitoring of both the stimulated and control cell populations. As a proof of concept we cycled a population of lymphatic endothelial cells (LECs) between 0 % and 10 % strain at a 0.1 Hz frequency for 24 h. We observe stretch-induced alignment and elongation of LECs, providing the first demonstration that DEAs can be interfaced with living cells and used to control their mechanical environment.