A versatile method for dynamically controlled patterning of small populations of epithelial cells on substrates via non-contact piezoelectric inkjet printing
Intercellular interactions play a central role at the tissue and whole organism level modulating key cellular functions in normal and disease states. Studies of cell-cell communications are challenging due to ensemble averaging effects brought about by intrinsic heterogeneity in cellular function which requires such studies to be conducted with small populations of cells. Most of the current methods for producing and studying such small cell populations are complex to implement and require skilled personnel limiting their widespread utility in biomedical research labs. We present a simple and rapid method to produce small populations with varying size of epithelial cells (10–50 cells/population) with high-throughput (~ 1 population/second) on flat surfaces via patterning of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins and random seeding of cells. We demonstrate that despite inherent limitations of non-contact, drop-on-demand piezoelectric inkjet printing for protein patterning, varying mixtures of ECM proteins can be deposited with high reproducibility and level of control on glass substrates using a set of dynamically adjustable optimized deposition parameters. We demonstrate high consistency for the number of cells per population (~1 cell standard error of mean), the population’s size (~0.2 coefficient of variation) and shape, as well as accurate spatial placement of and distance between colonies of a panel of metaplastic and dysplastic esophageal epithelial cells with differing adhesion and motility characteristics. The number of cells per colony, colony size and shape can be varied by dynamically varying the amount of ECM proteins deposited per spatial location and the number of spatial locations on the substrate. The method is applicable to a broad range of biological and biomedical studies including cell-cell communications, cellular microenvironment, migration, and stimulus response.