Theses Doctoral

Roles of Cell Junctions and the Cytoskeleton in Substrate-free Cell Sheet Engineering

Wei, Qi

In multicellular organisms, one-cell-thick monolayer sheets are the simplest tissues, yet they play crucial roles in physiology and tissue engineering. Cells within these sheets are tightly connected to each other through specialized cell-adhesion molecules that typically cluster into in discrete patches called cell-cell junctions. Working together, these junctional organelles glue cells to their neighbors, integrate the cytoskeletons into a mechanical syncytium and transduce a variety of mechanical signals. Human bodies offer many vivid illustration of how a cell sheet physiology changes considerably during development and diseases, as shown in epidermal blistering and certain cardiomyopathy. Despite the extensive molecular and clinical work on cell junctions, relevant in vitro experimental data are often masked by cell-substrate interactions due to a lack of suitable experimental methods. It is therefore important to develop novel in vitro methods for characterizing how junctional proteins, as well as tightly associated cytoskeletal proteins, may modulate various cellular behaviors, such as viability and apoptosis, cell-cell adhesiveness and tissue integrity.
Control over cell viability is a fundamental property underlying numerous physiological processes. Cell-cell contact is likely to play a significant role in regulating cell vitality, but its function is easily masked by cell-substrate interactions, thus remains incompletely characterized. In the first part of this thesis, we developed an enzyme-based whole cell sheet lifting method and generated substrate- and scaffold-free keratinocyte (N/TERT-1) cell sheets. Cells within the suspended cell sheets have persisting intercellular contacts and remain viable, in contrast to trypsinized cells suspended without either cell-cell or cell-substrate contact, which underwent apoptosis at high rates. Suppression of junctional protein plakoglobin weakened cell-cell adhesion in cell sheets and suppressed apoptosis in suspended, trypsinized cells. These results demonstrate that cell-cell contact may be a fundamental control mechanism governing cell viability and that the plakoglobin is a key regulator of this process. The study also laid groundwork for subsequent characterization and manipulation of viable cell sheets for cell sheet engineering purpose.
Cell sheet engineering, characterized by harvest of cultured cell monolayer as a scaffold-free sheet, was recently developed. Particularly, cell sheet engineering based cardiac tissue engineering has emerged as an alternative method for the repair of damaged heart tissue. Such an engineered cell sheet offers a new way to study cell junctions when substrate interactions are no longer dominant. While this method is promising, it is limited by the fragility and shrinkage of the sheets as well as the lack of information regarding the characteristics of such sheets. In next part of the thesis we pursued two related research projects by developing a novel partial-lift method to generate strong, unshrunk substrate-free and scaffold-free cell sheets, first using skin cells and then refined and expanded to cardiac cells. The rationales for this approach are the ease with which skin cells can be manipulated, the similarities in cell junctions between skin and cardiac cells, and their potential clinical applications. These partially-lifted cell sheets engage primarily in cell-cell interactions, yet are amenable to biological and chemical perturbations and, importantly, mechanical conditioning. This simple yet powerful method was then deployed to test the hypothesis that the lifted cells would exhibit substantial reinforcement of key cytoskeletal and junctional components at cell-cell contacts, and that such reinforcement would be enhanced by mechanical conditioning. Results further demonstrate that the mechanical strength and cohesion of the substrate-free cell sheets strongly depend on the integrity of the actomyosin cytoskeleton and expression of the junctional protein plakoglobin. Moreover, our results showed that dissociating cell-substrate interactions and implementing mechanical conditioning enhances contraction, calcium signaling, alters viscoelastic property, and thus improves the functional cell-cell coupling in the cardiac sheets.
In sum, this thesis represents a first systematic examination of junctional regulation of cell viability and mechanical conditioning on cells with primarily cell-cell interactions. The information gained from this study will help advance our understanding of cell-cell interactions and improve cell sheets biomechanical properties. For tissue engineering purposes, our dispase-based partial-lift cell sheet harvesting method has the advantage of being biocompatible, easily applicable, rapidly collectable and stretchable, compared to currently available techniques. This simple yet powerful partial lift technique has enormous potential for fabricating clinically applicable skin and cardiac tissues.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Huang, Hayden
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2014