Ultrasound-driven microbubbles produce mechanical forces that can disrupt cell membranes (sonoporation). However, it is difficult to control microbubble location with respect to cells. This lack of control leads to low sonoporation efficiencies and variable outcomes. In this study, aqueous two-phase system (ATPS) droplets are used to localize microbubbles in select micro-regions at the surface of living cells. This is achieved by stably partitioning microbubbles in dextran (DEX) droplets, deposited on living adherent cells in medium containing polyethylene glycol (PEG). The interfacial energy at the PEG-DEX interface overcomes microbubble buoyancy and prevents microbubbles from floating away from the cells. Spreading of the small DEX droplets retains microbubbles at the cell surface in defined lateral positions without the need for antibody or cell-binding ligand conjugation. The patterned microbubbles are activated on a cell monolayer exposed to a broadly applied ultrasound field (center frequency 1.25 MHz, active element diameter 0.6 cm, pulse duration 8 μs or 30 s). This system enables efficient testing of different ultrasound conditions for their effects on sonoporation-mediated membrane disruption and cell viability. Regions of cells without patterned microbubbles show no injury or membrane disruption. In microbubble patterned regions, 8 μs ultrasound pulses (0.2-0.6 MPa) produce cell death that is primarily apoptotic. Ultrasound-induced apoptosis increases with higher extracellular calcium concentrations, with cells displaying all of the hallmarks of apoptosis including annexinV labeling, loss of mitochondrial membrane potential, caspase activation and changes in nuclear morphology.
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