Stem cell fate and behavior are affected by the bidirectional communication of cells and their local microenvironment (the stem cell niche), which includes biochemical cues, as well as physical and mechanical factors. Stem cells are normally cultured in conventional two-dimensional monolayer, with a mechanical environment very different from the physiological one. Here, we compare culture of rat mesenchymal stem cells on flat culture supports and in the “Nichoid”, an innovative three-dimensional substrate micro-engineered to recapitulate the architecture of the physiological niche in vitro
. Two versions of the culture substrates Nichoid (single-layered or “2D Nichoid” and multi-layered or “3D Nichoid”) were fabricated via two-photon laser polymerization in a biocompatible hybrid organic-inorganic photoresist (SZ2080). Mesenchymal stem cells, isolated from rat bone marrow, were seeded on flat substrates and on 2D and 3D Nichoid substrates and maintained in culture up to 2 weeks. During cell culture, we evaluated cell morphology, proliferation, cell motility and the expression of a panel of 89 mesenchymal stem cells’ specific genes, as well as intracellular structures organization. Our results show that mesenchymal stem cells adhered and grew in the 3D Nichoid with a comparable proliferation rate as compared to flat substrates. After seeding on flat substrates, cells displayed large and spread nucleus and cytoplasm, while cells cultured in the 3D Nichoid were spatially organized in three dimensions, with smaller and spherical nuclei. Gene expression analysis revealed the upregulation of genes related to stemness and to mesenchymal stem cells’ features in Nichoid-cultured cells, as compared to flat substrates. The observed changes in cytoskeletal organization of cells cultured on 3D Nichoids were also responsible for a different localization of the mechanotransducer transcription factor YAP, with an increase of the cytoplasmic retention in cells cultured in the 3D Nichoid. This difference could be explained by alterations in the import of transcription factors inside the nucleus due to the observed decrease of mean nuclear pore diameter, by transmission electron microscopy. Our data show that 3D distribution of cell volume has a profound effect on mesenchymal stem cells structure and on their mechanobiological response, and highlight the potential use of the 3D Nichoid substrate to strengthen the potential effects of MSC in vitro and in vivo.
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