Microvasculature-on-a-chip for the long-term study of endothelial barrier dysfunction and microvascular obstruction in disease

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Alterations in the mechanical properties of erythrocytes occurring in inflammatory and haematological disorders such as sickle-cell disease (SCD) and malaria often lead to increased endothelial permeability, haemolysis and microvascular obstruction. However, the associations among these pathological phenomena remain unknown. Here, we show that a perfusable, endothelialized microvasculature-on-a-chip featuring an interpenetrating-polymer-network hydrogel that recapitulates the stiffness of blood vessel intima, basement membrane self-deposition and self-healing endothelial barrier function for longer than one month enables the real-time visualization, with high spatiotemporal resolution, of microvascular obstruction and endothelial permeability under physiological flow conditions. We found that extracellular haem—a haemolytic by-product—induces delayed yet reversible endothelial permeability in a dose-dependent manner, and demonstrate that endothelial interactions with SCD or malaria-infected erythrocytes cause reversible microchannel occlusion and increased in situ endothelial permeability. The microvasculature-on-a-chip enables mechanistic insight into the endothelial barrier dysfunction associated with SCD, malaria and other inflammatory and haematological diseases.

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Fig. 1: Engineering an IPN hydrogel-based microvasculature-on-a-chip for investigating endothelial barrier function and cellular interactions in haematological diseases.
Fig. 2: Engineered microvasculature exhibits appropriate endothelial barrier function.
Fig. 3: Visualization and tracking of the spatiotemporal dynamics of endothelial barrier dysfunction in response to perfusion of inflammatory cytokines and haemolytic by-products and the 'self-healing' of engineered endothelial barrier integrity upon removal of these agents.
Fig. 4: Interactions between sickle RBCs and endothelial cells induce microchannel occlusion and loss of endothelial barrier function in the engineered microvasculature.
Fig. 5: Interactions between iRBCs and endothelial cells are sufficient to disrupt endothelial barrier function and act synergistically with TNF-α.


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This work was performed in part at the Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (a member of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, which is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant ECCS-1542174)). We acknowledge the clinical research personnel at Emory University and the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta who helped to obtain samples, and the patients for donating blood. We acknowledge D. Archer and L. A. Brown for valuable discussions. We acknowledge the rest of the Lam Lab for technical support and suggestions. Financial support was provided by National Science Foundation CAREER Award 1150235 (to W.A.L.), National Institutes of Health grants U01HL117721 (to S.F.O.-A., C.H.J. and W.A.L.), U54HL112309 (to W.A.L.) and R01HL121264 (to W.A.L.), and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Strokes grant R21NS085382 (to T.J.L.).

Author information

Y.Q. and W.A.L. designed the device. Y.Q., W.A.L., S.F.O.-A., C.H.J. and T.J.L. conceived and designed the project. Y.Q., B.A., Y.S., C.E.H., R.T., P.N.M., R.G.M. and J.C.C. performed the experimental work. Y.Q., W.A.L., S.F.O.-A., C.H.J. and T.J.L. analysed the data. Y.Q., W.A.L., S.F.O.-A., C.H.J., T.J.L., P.N.M. and J.C.C. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results.

Correspondence to Wilbur A. Lam.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary figures, tables and video captions.

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Supplementary Video 1

3D rendering of confocal microscopy immunostaining images of the adherens-junction protein VE-cadherin in the IPN-hydrogel-based endothelialized microfluidic system.

Supplementary Video 2

Diffusion of BSA-AF594 from acellular (non-endothelialized) microchannels can be used as a positive control to measure permeability.

Supplementary Video 3

Perfused BSA-AF594 was maintained in the ‘vascular’ space of the endothelialized microchannels during the permeability assay.

Supplementary Video 4

Perfusion of RBCs isolated from the sickle-cell disease patients with lower percentages of ISCs (~2.5%) into the engineered microvasculature (4-hour perfusion).

Supplementary Video 5

Perfusion of RBCs isolated from the sickle-cell disease patients with higher percentages of ISCs into the engineered microvasculature (4-hour perfusion).

Supplementary Video 6

Perfusion of malaria-infected RBCs into the engineered microvasculature (4-hour perfusion).

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