Creating interactions between tissue-engineered skeletal muscle and the peripheral nervous system

Effective models of mammalian tissues must allow and encourage physiologically (mimetic) correct interactions between co-cultured cell types in order to produce culture microenvironments as similar as possible to those that would normally occur in vivo. In the case of skeletal muscle, the development of such a culture model, integrating multiple relevant cell types within a biomimetic scaffold, would be of significant benefit for investigations into the development, functional performance, and pathophysiology of skeletal muscle tissue. Although some work has been published regarding the behaviour of in vitro muscle models co-cultured with organotypic slices of CNS tissue or with stem cell-derived neurospheres, little investigation has so far been made regarding the potential to maintain isolated motor neurons within a 3D biomimetic skeletal muscle culture platform. Here, we review the current state of the art for engineering neuromuscular contacts in vitro and provide original data detailing the development of a 3D collagen-based model for the co-culture of primary muscle cells and motor neurons. The devised culture system promotes increased myoblast differentiation, forming arrays of parallel, aligned myotubes on which areas of nerve-muscle contact can be detected by immunostaining for pre- and post-synaptic proteins. Quantitative RT-PCR results indicate that motor neuron presence has a positive effect on myotube maturation, suggesting neural incorporation influences muscle development and maturation in vitro. The importance of this work is discussed in relation to other published neuromuscular co-culture platforms along with possible future directions for the field.