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Theses Doctoral

Engineering Patient-specific Liver Microtissues with Prolonged Phenotypic Maintenance and Disease Modeling Potential

Huang, Dantong

The burden of liver diseases is increasing worldwide, accounting for two million deaths annually. In the past decade, tremendous progress has been made in the basic and translational research of liver tissue engineering, which seeks to build physiologically relevant liver models to better understand liver diseases, accelerate drug development, and advance regenerative medicine. Liver microtissues are small, three-dimensional (3D) hepatocyte cultures that recapitulate liver physiology and have been used in many biomedical applications. However, sourcing of high-quality human hepatocytes for microtissue fabrication poses a significant challenge. Since the inception of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology, iPSC-derived hepatocyte-like cells (HLCs) have demonstrated significant improvement over other hepatocyte cell sources in many studies. Despite their promising potential, HLCs face certain challenges: they resemble fetal hepatocytes rather than adult hepatocytes; they undergo dedifferentiation quickly after reaching maturity; they are produced on a small scale; and they exhibit large donor-to-donor and batch-to-batch variability.

This doctoral thesis focuses on engineering patient-specific liver microtissues with prolonged phenotypic maintenance and disease modeling potential. Chapter 1 provides a review of recent advances, challenges, and future directions in liver microtissue research. 3D microtissues can be generated by scaffold-free assembly or scaffold-assisted methods using macroencapsulation, droplet microfluidics, and bioprinting. Optimization of the hepatic microenvironment entails incorporating the appropriate cell composition for enhanced cell-cell interactions and niche-specific signals, and creating scaffolds with desired chemical, mechanical and physical properties. Perfusion-based culture systems such as bioreactors and microfluidic systems are used to achieve efficient exchange of nutrients and soluble factors in the microtissues.

Chapter 2 describes our efforts in optimizing methods of generating human HLCs from the peripheral blood of selected donors. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were first reprogrammed to iPSCs using Sendai viruses carrying the four Yamanaka factors. We developed an optimized protocol for hepatocyte differentiation from iPSCs, and obtained HLCs that exhibited hepatocyte-specific phenotypes and functions that were comparable to other reports. We then demonstrated the one-step generation of homogeneous, microencapsulated liver microtissues in Chapter 3. Droplet microfluidics was used to produce double emulsion droplets that served as individual microenvironments where HLCs were encapsulated in methylated collagen and alginate. The cells self-assembled in <16 hours through dynamic interactions with methylated collagen, and individual spheroids were encapsulated in polymerized alginate gel to prevent cell fusion and attachment. HLC spheroids remained viable and functional for >24 days, whereas 2D HLCs underwent dedifferentiation within 7 days of reaching maturity. The spheroids showed further maturation compared to the 2D HLCs at peak maturity. Co-culture of HLCs with human endothelial cells was also investigated in the 3D system, but no improvement was observed over monoculture spheroids with our current methods. To our knowledge, this is the first study to utilize droplet microfluidics to generate homogeneous, compartmentalized droplets that serve as optimized 3D microenvironments for HLC aggregation and maturation. It demonstrated the potential of using high-throughput droplet microfluidics to produce and encapsulate mature, functional human HLCs for long-term applications.

In Chapter 4, we developed a TM6SF2 knockout and overexpression model in iPSCs to investigate its molecular function and potential role in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Transmembrane 6 superfamily member 2 (TM6SF2) is a protein of unknown function, and analysis from our model suggested that TM6SF2 dysregulation has a biphasic response. Our data showed that both knockout and overexpression can result in the upregulation of cholesterol biosynthesis and a defect in the proper processing of lipid droplets. Additionally, high expression of the TM6SF2 rs58542926 variant has an increased risk for cholesterol upregulation, compared to the major allele. Future works will focus on generating liver microtissues from the TM6SF2 knockout and transgene-expressing cells using droplet microfluidics, and validating our hypotheses with established biochemical and functional assays.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2023-04-23.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Leong, Kam W.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2021