In vitro models of the cardiac microenvironment to study myocyte and non-myocyte crosstalk: bioinspired approaches beyond the polystyrene dish.
To bridge the gap between two-dimensional cell culture and tissue, various three-dimensional (3-D) cell culture approaches have been developed for the investigation of cardiac myocytes (CMs) and cardiac fibroblasts (CFs). However, several limitations still exist. This study was designed to develop a cardiac 3-D culture model with a scaffold-free technology that can easily and inexpensively generate large numbers of microtissues with cellular distribution and functional behavior similar to cardiac tissue. Using micromolded nonadhesive agarose hydrogels containing 822 concave recesses (800 μm deep × 400 μm wide), we demonstrated that neonatal rat ventricular CMs and CFs alone or in combination self-assembled into viable (Live/Dead stain) spherical-shaped microtissues. Importantly, when seeded simultaneously or sequentially, CMs and CFs self-sorted to be interspersed, reminiscent of their myocardial distribution, as shown by cell type-specific CellTracker or antibody labeling. Microelectrode recordings and optical mapping revealed characteristic triangular action potentials (APs) with a resting membrane potential of -66 ± 7 mV (n = 4) in spontaneously contracting CM microtissues. Under pacing, optically mapped AP duration at 90% repolarization and conduction velocity were 100 ± 30 ms and 18.0 ± 1.9 cm/s, respectively (n = 5 each). The presence of CFs led to a twofold AP prolongation in heterogenous microtissues (CM-to-CF ratio of 1:1). Importantly, Ba(2+)-sensitive inward rectifier K(+) currents and Ca(2+)-handling proteins, including sarco(endo)plasmic reticulum Ca(2+)-ATPase 2a, were detected in CM-containing microtissues. Furthermore, cell type-specific adenoviral gene transfer was achieved, with no impact on microtissue formation or cell viability. In conclusion, we developed a novel scaffold-free cardiac 3-D culture model with several advancements for the investigation of CM and CF function and cross-regulation.