A Bioinformatics 3D Cellular Morphotyping Strategy for Assessing Biomaterial Scaffold Niches

Many biomaterial scaffolds have been advanced to provide synthetic cell niches for tissue engineering and drug screening applications; however, current methods for comparing scaffold niches focus on cell functional outcomes or attempt to normalize materials properties between different scaffold formats. We demonstrate a three-dimensional (3D) cellular morphotyping strategy for comparing biomaterial scaffold cell niches between different biomaterial scaffold formats. Primary human bone marrow stromal cells (hBMSCs) were cultured on 8 different biomaterial scaffolds, including fibrous scaffolds, hydrogels, and porous sponges, in 10 treatment groups to compare a variety of biomaterial scaffolds and cell morphologies. A bioinformatics approach was used to determine the 3D cellular morphotype for each treatment group by using 82 shape metrics to analyze approximately 1000 cells. We found that hBMSCs cultured on planar substrates yielded planar cell morphotypes, while those cultured in 3D scaffolds had elongated or equiaxial cellular morphotypes with greater height. Multivariate analysis was effective at distinguishing mean shapes of cells in flat substrates from cells in scaffolds, as was the metric L1-depth (the cell height along its shortest axis after aligning cells with a characteristic ellipsoid). The 3D cellular morphotyping technique enables direct comparison of cellular microenvironments between widely different types of scaffolds and design of scaffolds based on cell structure–function relationships.