Initiating human articular chondrocyte re-differentiation in a 3D system after 2D expansion
Tuning the degradation profiles of polymer cell carriers to match cell and tissue growth is an important design parameter for (cartilage) tissue engineering. In this study, degradable hydrogels were fabricated from divinyl, tetrafunctional poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) and multivinyl, multifunctional poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA) macromers to form homopolymer and copolymer gels. These gels were characterized by their volumetric swelling ratio and mass loss profiles as a function of degradation time. By variation of the macromer chemistry and functionality, the degradation time changed from less than 1 day for homopolymer PVA gels to 34 days for pure PEG gels. Furthermore, the degrading medium influenced mass loss, and a marked decrease in degradation time, from 34 to 12 days, was observed with the PEG gels when a chondrocyte-specific medium containing fetal bovine serum was employed. Interestingly, when copolymer gels of PEG and PVA were formed, PVA was released throughout the degradation (as determined by gel permeation chromatography) suggesting that covalent cross-linking of the PVA in the network was facilitated by copolymerizing with the PEG macromer. To assess these novel gels for cartilage tissue engineering applications, chondrocytes were photoencapsulated in the copolymer networks and cultured in vitro for up to 6 weeks. DNA, glycosaminoglycan (GAG), and total collagen contents increased with culture time, and the resulting neocartilaginous tissue at 6 weeks was homogeneously distributed as seen histologically. Biochemical analysis revealed that the constructs were comprised of 0.66 +/- 0.04 microg of DNA/mg wet weight (ww), 1.0 +/- 0.05% GAG/ww, and 0.29 +/- 0.07% total collagen/ww at 6 weeks. Furthermore, the compressive modulus increased during culture from 7 to 97 kPa as the neocartilaginous tissue evolved and the gel degraded. In summary, fabricating hydrogels through the copolymerization of PEG and PVA macromers is an effective tool for encapsulating chondrocytes, controlling gel degradation profiles, and generating cartilaginous tissue.