Synthesis and characterization of thiol-acrylate hydrogels using a base-catalyzed Michael addition for 3D cell culture applications

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There is significant interest in developing new approaches for culturing mammalian cells in a three-dimensional (3D) environment due to the fact that it better recapitulates the in vivo environment. The goal of this work was to develop thiol-acrylate, biodegradable hydrogels that possess highly tunable properties to support in vitro 3D culture. Six different hydrogel formulations were synthesized using two readily available monomers, a trithiol (ETTMP 1300 [ethoxylated trimethylolpropane tri(3-mercaptopropionate) 1300]) and a diacrylate (PEGDA 700 [polyethylene glycol diacrylate 700]), polymerized by a base-catalyzed Michael addition reaction. The resultant hydrogels were homogeneous, hydrophilic, and biodegradable. Different mechanical properties such as gelation time, storage modulus (or the elasticity G'), swelling ratio, and rate of degradation were tuned by varying the weight percentage of polymer, the molar ratio of thiol-to-acrylate groups, and the pH of the solution. Cytocompatibility was assessed using two model breast cancer cell lines by both 2D and 3D cell culturing approaches. The hydrogel formulations with a thiol-to-acrylate molar ratio of 1.05 were found to be optimal for both 2D and 3D cultures with MDA-MB-231 cellular aggregates found to be viable after 17 days of 3D continuous culture. Finally, MCF7 cells were observed to form 3D spheroids up to 600 μm in diameter as proof of principle for the thiol-acrylate hydrogel to function as a scaffold for in vitro 3D cell culture. A comparison of the different mechanical properties of the six hydrogel formulations coupled with in vitro cell culture results and findings from previously published hydrogels conclude that the thiol-acrylate hydrogels have significant potential as a scaffold for 3D cell culture.

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Journal of biomedical materials research. Part B, Applied biomaterials

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