Fabrication of PNIPAm-based thermoresponsive hydrogel microwell arrays for tumor spheroid formation

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Complex three-dimensional (3D) cell cultures are being increasingly implemented in biomedical research as they provide important insights into complex cancer biology, and cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions in the tumor microenvironment. However, most methods used today for 3D cell culture are limited by high cost, the need for specialized skills, low throughput and the use of unnatural culture environments. We report the development of a unique biomimetic hydrogel microwell array platform for the generation and stress-free isolation of cancer spheroids. The poly N-isopropylacrylamide-based hydrogel microwell array (PHMA) has thermoresponsive properties allowing for the attachment and growth of cell aggregates/ spheroids at 37 °C, and their easy isolation at room temperature (RT). The reversible phase transition of the microwell arrays at 35 °C was confirmed visually and by differential scanning calorimetry. Swelling/ shrinking studies and EVOS imaging established that the microwell arrays are hydrophilic and swollen at temperatures <35 °C, while they shrink and are hydrophobic at temperatures >35 °C. Spheroid development within the PHMA was optimized for seeding density, incubation time and cell viability. Spheroids of A549, HeLa and MG-63 cancer cell lines, and human lung fibroblast (HLF) cell line generated within the PHMAs had relatively spherical morphology with hypoxic cores. Finally, using MG-63 cell spheroids as representative models, a proof-of-concept drug response study using doxorubicin hydrochloride was conducted. Overall, we demonstrate that the PHMAs are an innovative alternative to currently used 3D cell culture techniques, for the high-throughput generation of cell spheroids for disease modeling and drug screening applications.

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Materials Science and Engineering C