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Lab Chip. 2010 Dec 7;10(23):3277-83. doi: 10.1039/c0lc00033g. Epub 2010 Oct 11.

Microfluidic device generating stable concentration gradients for long term cell culture: application to Wnt3a regulation of β-catenin signaling.

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Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Padua, Via Marzolo, 9, I-35131 Padua, Italy.


In developing tissues, proteins and signaling molecules present themselves in the form of concentration gradients, which determine the fate specification and behavior of the sensing cells. To mimic these conditions in vitro, we developed a microfluidic device designed to generate stable concentration gradients at low hydrodynamic shear and allowing long term culture of adhering cells. The gradient forms in a culture space between two parallel laminar flow streams of culture medium at two different concentrations of a given morphogen. The exact algorithm for defining the concentration gradients was established with the aid of mathematical modeling of flow and mass transport. Wnt3a regulation of β-catenin signaling was chosen as a case study. The highly conserved Wnt-activated β-catenin pathway plays major roles in embryonic development, stem cell proliferation and differentiation. Wnt3a stimulates the activity of β-catenin pathway, leading to translocation of β-catenin to the nucleus where it activates a series of target genes. We cultured A375 cells stably expressing a Wnt/β-catenin reporter driving the expression of Venus, pBARVS, inside the microfluidic device. The extent to which the β-catenin pathway was activated in response to a gradient of Wnt3a was assessed in real time using the BARVS reporter gene. On a single cell level, the β-catenin signaling was proportionate to the concentration gradient of Wnt3a; we thus propose that the modulation of Wnt3a gradients in real time can provide new insights into the dynamics of β-catenin pathway, under conditions that replicate some aspects of the actual cell-tissue milieu. Our device thus offers a highly controllable platform for exploring the effects of concentration gradients on cultured cells.

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