Engineering cell aggregates through incorporated polymeric microparticles

Caroline C. Ahrens, Ziye Dong, Wei Li

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Ex vivo cell aggregates must overcome significant limitations in the transport of nutrients, drugs, and signaling proteins compared to vascularized native tissue. Further, engineered extracellular environments often fail to sufficiently replicate tethered signaling cues and the complex architecture of native tissue. Co-cultures of cells with microparticles (MPs) is a growing field directed towards overcoming many of these challenges by providing local and controlled presentation of both soluble and tethered proteins and small molecules. Further, co-cultured MPs offer a mechanism to better control aggregate architecture and even to report key characteristics of the local microenvironment such as pH or oxygen levels. Herein, we provide a brief introduction to established and developing strategies for MP production including the choice of MP materials, fabrication techniques, and techniques for incorporating additional functionality. In all cases, we emphasize the specific utility of each approach to form MPs useful for applications in cell aggregate co-culture. We review established techniques to integrate cells and MPs. We highlight those strategies that promote targeted heterogeneity or homogeneity, and we describe approaches to engineer cell-particle and particle–particle interactions that enhance aggregate stability and biological response. Finally, we review advances in key application areas of MP aggregates and future areas of development. Statement of Significant Cell-scaled polymer microparticles (MPs) integrated into cellular aggregates have been shown to be a powerful tool to direct cell response. MPs have supported the development of healthy cartilage, islets, nerves, and vasculature by the maintenance of soluble gradients as well as by the local presentation of tethered cues and diffusing proteins and small molecules. MPs integrated with pluripotent stem cells have directed in vivo expansion and differentiation. Looking forward, MPs are expected to support both the characterization and development of in vitro tissue systems for applications such as drug testing platforms. However, useful co-cultures must be designed keeping in mind the limitations and attributes of each material strategy within the context of the overall tissue biology. The present review integrates prospectives from materials development, drug delivery, and tissue engineering to provide a toolbox for the development and application of MPs useful for long-term co-culture within cell aggregates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)64-81
Number of pages18
JournalActa Biomaterialia
StatePublished - Oct 15 2017


  • Cell aggregates
  • Ex vivo
  • Extracellular matrix (ECM)
  • In vitro models
  • Microenvironment
  • Microparticle


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