Selectively cross-linked tetra-PEG hydrogels provide control over mechanical strength with minimal impact on diffusivity

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Synthetic hydrogels formed from poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) are widely used to study how cells interact with their extracellular matrix. These in vivo-like 3D environments provide a basis for tissue engineering and cell therapies, but also for research into fundamental biological questions and disease modelling. The physical properties of PEG hydrogels can be modulated to provide mechanical cues to encapsulated cells; however, the impact of changing hydrogel stiffness on the diffusivity of solutes to and from encapsulated cells has received only limited attention. This is particularly true in selectively cross-linked “tetra-PEG” hydrogels, whose design limits network inhomogeneities. Here, we used a combination of theoretical calculations, predictive modelling and experimental measurements of hydrogel swelling, rheological behaviour, and diffusion kinetics to characterise tetra-PEG hydrogels’ permissiveness to the diffusion of molecules of biologically relevant size as we changed polymer concentration, and thus hydrogel mechanical strength. Our models predict that hydrogel mesh size has little effect on the diffusivity of model molecules, and instead predicts that diffusion rates are more highly dependent on solute size. Indeed, our model predicts that changes in hydrogel mesh size only begin to have a non-negligible impact on the concentration of solute that diffuses out of hydrogels for the smallest mesh sizes and largest diffusing solutes. Experimental measurements characterising the diffusion of FITC-labelled dextran molecules of known size aligned well with modelling predictions and suggest that doubling polymer concentration from 2.5% (w/v) to 5% produces stiffer gels with faster gelling kinetics without affecting the diffusivity of solutes of biologically relevant size, but that 10% hydrogels can slow their diffusion. Our findings provide confidence that the stiffness of tetra-PEG hydrogels can be modulated over a physiological range without significantly impacting the transport rates of solutes to and from encapsulated cells.
Original languageEnglish
JournalACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 13 Apr 2021


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