A Modular Microscale Granuloma Model for Immune-Microenvironment Signaling Studies in vitro

Front Bioeng Biotechnol. 2020 Aug 18;8:931. doi: 10.3389/fbioe.2020.00931. eCollection 2020.


Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the most potent infectious diseases in the world, causing more deaths than any other single infectious agent. TB infection is caused by inhalation of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) and subsequent phagocytosis and migration into the lung tissue by innate immune cells (e.g., alveolar macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells), resulting in the formation of a fused mass of immune cells known as the granuloma. Considered the pathological hallmark of TB, the granuloma is a complex microenvironment that is crucial for pathogen containment as well as pathogen survival. Disruption of the delicate granuloma microenvironment via numerous stimuli, such as variations in cytokine secretions, nutrient availability, and the makeup of immune cell population, can lead to an active infection. Herein, we present a novel in vitro model to examine the soluble factor signaling between a mycobacterial infection and its surrounding environment. Adapting a newly developed suspended microfluidic platform, known as Stacks, we established a modular microscale infection model containing human immune cells and a model mycobacterial strain that can easily integrate with different microenvironmental cues through simple spatial and temporal "stacking" of each module of the platform. We validate the establishment of suspended microscale (4 μL) infection cultures that secrete increased levels of proinflammatory factors IL-6, VEGF, and TNFα upon infection and form 3D aggregates (granuloma model) encapsulating the mycobacteria. As a proof of concept to demonstrate the capability of our platform to examine soluble factor signaling, we cocultured an in vitro angiogenesis model with the granuloma model and quantified morphology changes in endothelial structures as a result of culture conditions (P < 0.05 when comparing infected vs. uninfected coculture systems). We envision our modular in vitro granuloma model can be further expanded and adapted for studies focusing on the complex interplay between granulomatous structures and their surrounding microenvironment, as well as a complementary tool to augment in vivo signaling and mechanistic studies.

Keywords: immune signaling; in vitro granuloma model; microenvironment; modular; open microfluidics; paracrine signaling.