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Migration of neural crest cells (NCCs) is one of the pivotal processes of human fetal development. Malformations arise if NCC migration and differentiation are impaired genetically or by toxicants. In the currently available test systems for migration inhibition of NCC (MINC), the manual generation of a cell-free space results in extreme operator dependencies, and limits throughput. Here a new test format was established. The assay avoids scratching by plating cells around a commercially available circular stopper. Removal of the stopper barrier after cell attachment initiates migration. This microwell-based circular migration zone NCC function assay (cMINC) was further optimized for toxicological testing of human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC)-derived NCCs. The challenge of obtaining data on viability and migration by automated image processing was addressed by developing a freeware. Data on cell proliferation were obtained by labelling replicating cells, and by careful assessment of cell viability for each experimental sample. The role of cell proliferation as an experimental confounder was tested experimentally by performing the cMINC in the presence of the proliferation-inhibiting drug cytosine arabinoside (AraC), and by a careful evaluation of mitotic events over time. Data from these studies led to an adaptation of the test protocol, so that toxicant exposure was limited to 24 h. Under these conditions, a prediction model was developed that allows classification of toxicants as either inactive, leading to unspecific cytotoxicity, or specifically inhibiting NC migration at non-cytotoxic concentrations.
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