Transmigration of leukocytes across blood vessels walls is a critical step of the immune response. Transwell assays examine transmigration properties in vitro by counting cells passages through a membrane; however, the difficulty of in situ imaging hampers a clear disentanglement of the roles of adhesion, chemokinesis, and chemotaxis. We used here microfluidic Transwells to image the cells' transition from 2D migration on a surface to 3D migration in a confining microchannel and measure cells longitudinal forward-thrusting force in microchannels. Primary human effector T lymphocytes adhering with integrins LFA-1 (αLβ2) had a marked propensity to transmigrate in Transwells without chemotactic cue. Both adhesion and contractility were important to overcome the critical step of nucleus penetration but were remarkably dispensable for 3D migration in smooth microchannels deprived of topographic features. Transmigration in smooth channels was qualitatively consistent with a propulsion by treadmilling of cell envelope and squeezing of cell trailing edge. Stalling conditions of 3D migration were then assessed by imposing pressure drops across microchannels. Without specific adhesion, the cells slid backward with subnanonewton forces, showing that 3D migration under stress is strongly limited by a lack of adhesion and friction with channels. With specific LFA-1 mediated adhesion, stalling occurred at around 3 and 6 nN in 2 × 4 and 4 × 4 μm2 channels, respectively, supporting that stalling of adherent cells was under pressure control rather than force control. The stall pressure of 4 mbar is consistent with the pressure of actin filament polymerization that mediates lamellipod growth. The arrest of adherent cells under stress therefore seems controlled by the compression of the cell leading edge, which perturbs cells front-rear polarization and triggers adhesion failure or polarization reversal. Although stalling assays in microfluidic Transwells do not mimic in vivo transmigration, they provide a powerful tool to scrutinize 2D and 3D migration, barotaxis, and chemotaxis.
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