Microfluidic Methods for Investigating Cell Migration and Cell Mechanics

  • Yuri Belotti

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In this thesis I explore how migratory properties of the model organism Dictyostelium discoideum are influenced by dimensionality and topology of the environment that surrounds the cell. Additionally, I sought to develop a microfluidic device able to measure mechanical properties of single cells with a sufficient throughput to account for the inherent heterogeneity of biological samples. Throughout this thesis I made use of microfabrication methods such as photo-lithography and soft-lithography, to develop ad hoc microstructured substrates. These tools enabled me to tackle different biological and biomedical questions related to cell migration and cell mechanics. Confining cells into channels with low dimensionality appeared to regulate the velocity of cellular locomotion, as well as the migration strategy adopted by the cell. Spatial confinement induced an altered arrangement of the acto-myosin cytoskeleton and microtubules. Moreover, the spatial constraint resulted in a simplified, mono-dimensional migration, characterised by constant average speed. Additionally, some cellular processes tended to occur in a periodic fashion, upon confinement. Interestingly, if Dictyostelium cells migrated through asymmetric bifurcating micro- channels, they appeared to be able to undergo a ’decision-making’ process leading to a directional bias. Although the biophysical mechanism underlying this response is yet to be understood, the data shown in this thesis suggest that Dictyostelium cells respond to differences in local concentrations of chemoattractants. The speed of a cell that crawls in a channel also depends on the cell’s stiffness, that in turn represents a measure of the density and structure of its cytoskeleton. To date, only a few methods have been developed to investigate cell mechanics with sufficient throughput. This motivated my interest in developing a microfluidic based device that, exploiting the recording capabilities of a modern high speed camera, enabled me to assess the cellular mechanical properties at a rate greater than 10,000 cells per second, without the need for cell labelling. In this thesis I presented an example of how this method can be employed to detect differences between healthy and cancerous prostate cells, as well as to differentiate between prostate and bladder cancer cells based on their mechanical response. In conclusion, the work presented in this thesis highlights the interdisciplinarity required to investigate complex biological and biomedical problems. Specifically, the use of quantitative approaches that span from microtechnology, live imaging, computer vision and computational modelling enabled me to investigate novel biological processes as well as to explore new diagnostic technologies that aim to promote the improvement of the future healthcare.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council & Tenovus Scotland
SupervisorDavid McGloin (Supervisor) & Kees Weijer (Supervisor)


  • Microfluidics
  • Cell migration
  • Cell mechanics
  • High speed imaging

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