Intracellular delivery of macromolecules is a challenge in research and therapeutic applications. Existing vector-based and physical methods have limitations, including their reliance on exogenous materials or electrical fields, which can lead to toxicity or off-target effects. We describe a microfluidic approach to delivery in which cells are mechanically deformed as they pass through a constriction 30-80% smaller than the cell diameter. The resulting controlled application of compression and shear forces results in the formation of transient holes that enable the diffusion of material from the surrounding buffer into the cytosol. The method has demonstrated the ability to deliver a range of material, such as carbon nanotubes, proteins, and siRNA, to 11 cell types, including embryonic stem cells and immune cells. When used for the delivery of transcription factors, the microfluidic devices produced a 10-fold improvement in colony formation relative to electroporation and cell-penetrating peptides. Indeed, its ability to deliver structurally diverse materials and its applicability to difficult-to-transfect primary cells indicate that this method could potentially enable many research and clinical applications.
Mechanical forces are critical to embryogenesis, specifically, in the lineage-specification gastrulation phase, whereupon the embryo is transformed from a simple spherical ball of cells to a multi-layered organism, containing properly organized endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm germ layers. Several reports have proposed that such directed and coordinated movements of large cell collectives are driven by cellular responses to cell deformations and cell-generated forces. To better understand these environmental-induced cell changes, we have modeled the germ layer formation process by culturing human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) on three dimensional (3D) scaffolds with stiffness engineered to model that found in specific germ layers. We show that differentiation to each germ layer was promoted by a different stiffness threshold of the scaffolds, reminiscent of the forces exerted during the gastrulation process. The overall results suggest that three dimensional (3D) scaffolds can recapitulate the mechanical stimuli required for directing hESC differentiation and that these stimuli can play a significant role in determining hESC fate.
Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) hold great potential as a resource for regenerative medicine. Before achieving therapeutic relevancy, methods must be developed to control stem cell differentiation. It is clear that stem cells can respond to genetic signals, such as those imparted by nucleic acids, to promote lineage-specific differentiation. Here we have developed an efficient system for delivering siRNA to hESCs in a 3D culture matrix using lipid-like materials. We show that non-viral siRNA delivery in a 3D scaffolds can efficiently knockdown 90% of GFP expression in GFP-hESCs. We further show that this system can be used as a platform for directing hESC differentiation. Through siRNA silencing of the KDR receptor gene, we achieve concurrent downregulation (60-90%) in genes representative of the endoderm germ layer and significant upregulation of genes representative of the mesoderm germ layer (27-90 fold). This demonstrates that siRNA can direct stem cell differentiation by blocking genes representative of one germ layer and also provides a particularly powerful means to isolate the endoderm germ layer from the mesoderm and ectoderm. This ability to inhibit endoderm germ layer differentiation could allow for improved control over hESC differentiation to desired cell types.