Finding a real use for cytophobic culture plates

A marketing consulting project which used applied research

BT&C Inc.

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A major manufacturer of cell cultureware enlisted our services to find a use for a product which lacked practical application.  In this instance, a development team created a product because they "could", but without any clear picture on who were their customers. 

Essentially tissue culture plates were developed that prevented cells from adhering.  Although polystyrene culture plates and flasks are traditionally modified so to enhance the attachment and proliferation of adherent cells, this particular cultureware did the exact opposite.  Apparently the cells not only failed to adhere to these plates, but the plate surface seemed to repel the cells.  As a result, these plates were considered cytophobic.

Our task was to determine a practical use for these plates.  At the time, the mechanism for cell attachment was not well understood, nor was the concept of extracellular matrix and its interaction with the cell.  Thus, working from a limited knowledge base, we first needed to identify instances where existing cell culture plates and flasks had a direct impact on experimentation.  It was assumed that a cytophobic plate would be useful only if there existed circumstances where cell and plate interactions produced undesirable results. 

Using prior knowledge which was supported by a literature search, one important negative consequence of cell/culture plate interactions that BT&C identified dealt with the activation of quiescent macrophages.  Macrophages that are harvested from the peritoneal cavity of mice are essentially sleeping (quiescence) and awaiting the opportunity to respond against bacteria that invade the peritoneum by escaping the intestine.  A major characteristic of peritoneal macrophages is that they are not actively producing cytokines, especially tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα).  When quiescent macrophages are harvested and exposed to traditional tissue culture surfaces, they activate by attaching to the surface, proliferating, all while secreting elevated levels of TNFα. 

Macrophage activation is triggered by foreign stimuli, such as bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPS).  Quiescent macrophages that are exposed to LPS undergo a similar behavior as those plated on traditional cell culture plates.  Consequently, research focusing on the activation of macrophages by LPS, or similar stimuli, would be severely hampered by the artificial response of the macrophage to traditional tissue culture plates. 

BT&C used this limitation of current products as a rationale for justifying the cytophobic plate for our client.  We were able to harvest macrophages and plate them into cytophobic 24 well plates and maintain quiescence as compared to the same batch of cells plated on standard 24 well plates.  Furthermore, when LPS was added to the quiescent cells, TNFα levels, as measured by ELISA, rapidly and sharply increased. 

Though using the "Field of Dreams" approach for product development is not recommended (i.e., "build it and they will come"), in the case of cytophobic cultureware, BT&C was able to retrofit the product with an application.