Biomimetics of the Pulmonary Environment in vitro: A Microfluidics Perspective

Biomicrofluidics. 2018 May 29;12(4):042209. doi: 10.1063/1.5023034. eCollection 2018 Jul.


The entire luminal surface of the lungs is populated with a complex yet confluent, uninterrupted airway epithelium in conjunction with an extracellular liquid lining layer that creates the air-liquid interface (ALI), a critical feature of healthy lungs. Motivated by lung disease modelling, cytotoxicity studies, and drug delivery assessments amongst other, in vitro setups have been traditionally conducted using macroscopic cultures of isolated airway cells under submerged conditions or instead using transwell inserts with permeable membranes to model the ALI architecture. Yet, such strategies continue to fall short of delivering a sufficiently realistic physiological in vitro airway environment that cohesively integrates at true-scale three essential pillars: morphological constraints (i.e., airway anatomy), physiological conditions (e.g., respiratory airflows), and biological functionality (e.g., cellular makeup). With the advent of microfluidic lung-on-chips, there have been tremendous efforts towards designing biomimetic airway models of the epithelial barrier, including the ALI, and leveraging such in vitro scaffolds as a gateway for pulmonary disease modelling and drug screening assays. Here, we review in vitro platforms mimicking the pulmonary environment and identify ongoing challenges in reconstituting accurate biological airway barriers that still widely prevent microfluidic systems from delivering mainstream assays for the end-user, as compared to macroscale in vitro cell cultures. We further discuss existing hurdles in scaling up current lung-on-chip designs, from single airway models to more physiologically realistic airway environments that are anticipated to deliver increasingly meaningful whole-organ functions, with an outlook on translational and precision medicine.