Encoding Hydrogel Mechanics via Network Cross-Linking Structure.
The effects of mechanical cues on cell behaviors in 3D remain difficult to characterize as the ability to tune hydrogel mechanics often requires changes in the polymer density, potentially altering the material's biochemical and physical characteristics. Additionally, with most PEG diacrylate (PEGDA) hydrogels, forming materials with compressive moduli less than ∼10 kPa has been virtually impossible. Here, we present a new method of controlling the mechanical properties of PEGDA hydrogels independent of polymer chain density through the incorporation of additional vinyl group moieties that interfere with the cross-linking of the network. This modification can tune hydrogel mechanics in a concentration dependent manner from <1 to 17 kPa, a more physiologically relevant range than previously possible with PEG-based hydrogels, without altering the hydrogel's degradation and permeability. Across this range of mechanical properties, endothelial cells (ECs) encapsulated within MMP-2/MMP-9 degradable hydrogels with RGDS adhesive peptides revealed increased cell spreading as hydrogel stiffness decreased in contrast to behavior typically observed for cells on 2D surfaces. EC-pericyte cocultures exhibited vessel-like networks within 3 days in highly compliant hydrogels as compared to a week in stiffer hydrogels. These vessel networks persisted for at least 4 weeks and deposited laminin and collagen IV perivascularly. These results indicate that EC morphogenesis can be regulated using mechanical cues in 3D. Furthermore, controlling hydrogel compliance independent of density allows for the attainment of highly compliant mechanical regimes in materials that can act as customizable cell microenvironments.
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