The Role of Alpha Cells in the Self-Assembly of Bioengineered Islets

Fredrik C. Wieland, Mireille M.J.P.E. Sthijns, Thomas Geuens, Clemens A. van Blitterswijk, and Vanessa L.S. LaPointe

Published: 1 August 2021


Vascularization is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges in tissue engineering. Its importance is particularly evident when considering the transplantation of (bioengineered) pancreatic islets of Langerhans, which are highly sensitive to the delivery of oxygen and nutrients for their survival and function. Here we studied pseudoislets of Langerhans, which are three-dimensional spheroids composed of β (INS1E), α (alpha TC-1), and endothelial (HUVEC) cells, and were interested in how the location and prevalence of the different cell types affected the presence of endothelial cells in the pseudoislet. We hypothesized that alpha (α) cells play an essential role in islet self-assembly and the incorporation of endothelial cells into the pseudoislet, and are thus important to consider in tissue engineering or regenerative medicine strategies, which typically focuses on the insulin-producing beta (β) cells alone. We first determined the effect of changing the relative ratios of the cells and found the cell distribution converged on a steady state of ∼21% α cells, 74% β cells, and 5% endothelial cells after 10 days of culture regardless of their respective ratios at seeding. We also found that the incorporation of endothelial cells was related to the pseudoislet size, with more endothelial cells found in the core of larger pseudoislets following a concomitant increase of α cells and a decrease in β cells. Finally, we observed that both endothelial and β cells were found adjacent to α cells significantly more frequently than to each other. In conclusion, this study demonstrates that the self-assembly of a pseudoislet is an intrinsically cell-regulated process. The endothelial cells had preferential proximity to the α cells, and this persisted even when challenged with changing the cell ratios and numbers. This study gives insight into the rules governing the self-organization of pseudoislets and suggests an important role for α cells to promote the incorporation of endothelial cells.

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