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Lab Chip. 2005 Jan;5(1):74-85. Epub 2004 Oct 14.

An endothelial and astrocyte co-culture model of the blood-brain barrier utilizing an ultra-thin, nanofabricated silicon nitride membrane.

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  • 1Dept. of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Cornell University, 270 Olin Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


The endothelial cells comprising brain capillaries have extremely tight intercellular junctions which form an essentially impermeable barrier to passive transport of water soluble molecules between the blood and brain. Several in vitro models of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) have been studied, most utilizing commercially available polymer membranes affixed to plastic inserts. There is mounting evidence that direct contact between endothelial cells and astrocytes, another cell type found to have intimate interaction with the brain side of BBB capillaries, is at least partially responsible for the development of the tight intercellular junctions between BBB endothelial cells. However, the membranes commonly used for BBB in vitro models are lacking certain attributes that would permit a high degree of direct contact between astrocytes and endothelial cells cultured on opposing sides. This work is based on the hypothesis that co-culturing endothelial and astrocyte cells on opposite sides of an ultra-thin, highly porous membrane will allow for increased direct interaction between the two cell types and therefore result in a better model of the BBB. We used standard nanofabrication techniques to make membranes from low-stress silicon nitride that are at least an order of magnitude thinner and at least two times more porous than commercial membrane inserts. An experimental survey of pore sizes for the silicon nitride membranes suggested pores approximately 400 nm in diameter are adequate for restricting astrocyte cell bodies to the seeded side while allowing astrocyte processes to pass through the pores and interact with endothelial cells on the opposite side. The inclusion of a spun-on, cross-linked collagen membrane allowed for astrocyte attachment and culture on the membranes for over two weeks. Astrocytes and endothelial cells displayed markers specific to their cell types when grown on the silicon nitride membranes. The transendothelial electrical resistances, a measure of barrier tightness, of endothelial and astrocyte co-cultures on the silicon nitride membranes were comparable to the commercial membranes, but neither system showed synergy between the two cell types in forming a tighter barrier. This lack of synergy may have been due to the loss of ability of commercially available primary bovine brain microvascular endothelial cells to respond to astrocyte differentiating signals.

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