Directing the growth and alignment of biliary epithelium within extracellular matrix hydrogels

Three-dimensional (3D) printing of decellularized extracellular matrix (dECM) hydrogels is a promising technique for regenerative engineering. 3D-printing enables the reproducible and precise patterning of multiple cells and biomaterials in 3D, while dECM has high organ-specific bioactivity. However, dECM hydrogels often display poor printability on their own and necessitate additives or support materials to enable true 3D structures. In this study, we used a sacrificial material, 3D-printed Pluronic F-127, to serve as a platform into which dECM hydrogel can be incorporated to create specifically designed structures made entirely up of dECM. The effects of 3D dECM are studied in the context of engineering the intrahepatic biliary tree, an often-understudied topic in liver tissue engineering. Encapsulating biliary epithelial cells (cholangiocytes) within liver dECM has been shown to lead to the formation of complex biliary trees in vitro. By varying several aspects of the dECM structures’ geometry, such as width and angle, we show that we can guide the directional formation of biliary trees. This is confirmed by computational 3D image analysis of duct alignment. This system also enables fabrication of a true multi-layer dECM structure and the formation of 3D biliary trees into which other cell types can be seeded. For example, we show that hepatocyte spheroids can be easily incorporated within this system, and that the seeding sequence influences the resulting structures after seven days in culture.