Pitfalls in assessing microvascular endothelial barrier function: impedance-based devices versus the classic macromolecular tracer assay

Sci Rep. 2016 Mar 30;6:23671. doi: 10.1038/srep23671.


The most frequently used parameters to describe the barrier properties of endothelial cells (ECs) in vitro are (i) the macromolecular permeability, indicating the flux of a macromolecular tracer across the endothelium, and (ii) electrical impedance of ECs grown on gold-film electrodes reporting on the cell layer's tightness for ion flow. Due to the experimental differences between these approaches, inconsistent observations have been described. Here, we present the first direct comparison of these assays applied to one single cell type (human microvascular ECs) under the same experimental conditions. The impact of different pharmacological tools (histamine, forskolin, Y-27632, blebbistatin, TRAP) on endothelial barrier function was analyzed by Transwell(®) tracer assays and two commercial impedance devices (xCELLigence(®), ECIS(®)). The two impedance techniques provided very similar results for all compounds, whereas macromolecular permeability readings were found to be partly inconsistent with impedance. Possible reasons for these discrepancies are discussed. We conclude that the complementary combination of both approaches is highly recommended to overcome the restrictions of each assay. Since the nature of the growth support may contribute to the observed differences, structure-function relationships should be based on cells that are consistently grown on either permeable or impermeable growth supports in all experiments.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Amides / pharmacology
  • Biological Assay
  • Capillary Permeability / drug effects*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Electric Impedance
  • Endothelial Cells / physiology*
  • Endothelium, Vascular / cytology
  • Endothelium, Vascular / metabolism*
  • Histamine / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Pyridines / pharmacology


  • Amides
  • Pyridines
  • Y 27632
  • Histamine