Microscale collagen and fibroblast interactions enhance primary human hepatocyte functions in three-dimensional models

David A. Kukla, Alexandra L. Crampton, David K. Wood, Salman R. Khetani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Human liver models that are three-dimensional (3D) in architecture are indispensable for compound metabolism/ toxicity screening, to model liver diseases for drug discovery, and for cell-based therapies; however, further development of such models is needed to maintain high levels of primary human hepatocyte (PHH) functions for weeks to months. Therefore, here we determined how microscale 3D collagen I presentation and fibroblast interaction affect the longevity of PHHs. High-throughput droplet microfluidics was utilized to generate reproducibly sized (~300-µm diameter) microtissues containing PHHs encapsulated in collagen I ± supportive fibroblasts, namely, 3T3-J2 murine embryonic fibroblasts or primary human hepatic stellate cells (HSCs); self-assembled spheroids and bulk collagen gels (macrogels) containing PHHs served as controls. Hepatic functions and gene expression were subsequently measured for up to 6 weeks. We found that microtissues placed within multiwell plates rescued PHH functions at 2- to 30-fold higher levels than spheroids or macrogels. Further coating of PHH microtissues with 3T3-J2s led to higher hepatic functions than when the two cell types were either coencapsulated together or when HSCs were used for the coating instead. Importantly, the 3T3-J2-coated PHH microtissues displayed 6+ weeks of relatively stable hepatic gene expression and function at levels similar to freshly thawed PHHs. Lastly, microtissues responded in a clinically relevant manner to drug-mediated cytochrome P450 induction or hepatotoxicity. In conclusion, fibroblast-coated collagen microtissues containing PHHs display high hepatic functions for 6+ weeks and are useful for assessing drug-mediated CYP induction and hepatotoxicity. Ultimately, microtissues may find utility for modeling liver diseases and as building blocks for cell-based therapies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalGene Expression
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: We acknowledge Regeant Panday for cell culture assistance. Funding was provided by the National Institutes of Health (1R21ES027622-01 to S.R.K. and D.K.W.) and the National Science Foundation (CBET-1706393 to S.R.K. and D.K.W.). Portions of this work were conducted in the Minnesota Nano Center, which is supported by the National Science Foundation through the National Nano Coordinated Infrastructure Network under award number ECCS-1542202. A.L.C. was funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (00039202). The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Gene Expression The Journal of Liver Research. All rights reserved.


  • 3T3-J2
  • Droplet microfluidics
  • Hepatic stellate cells (HSCs)
  • Spheroids


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