We have created hyaluronic acid (HA)-based, cell-adhesive hydrogels that direct the initial attachment and the subsequent differentiation of human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) into pre-osteoblasts without osteogenic supplements. HA-based hydrogel particles (HGPs) with an average diameter of 5-6 μm containing an estimated 2.2 wt% gelatin (gHGPs) were synthesized by covalent immobilization of gelatin to HA HGPs prepared via an inverse emulsion polymerization technique. Separately, a photocrosslinkable HA macromer (HAGMA) was synthesized by chemical modification of HA with glycidyl methacrylate (GMA). Doubly crosslinked networks (DXNs) were engineered by embedding gHGPs in a secondary network established by HAGMA at a particle concentration of 2.5 wt%. The resultant composite gels, designated as HA-gHGP, have an average compressive modulus of 21 kPa, and are non-toxic to the cultured MSCs. MSCs readily attached to these gels, exhibiting an early stage of stress fiber assembly 3 h post seeding. By day 7, stellate-shaped cells with extended filopodia were found on HA-gHGP gels. Moreover, cells had migrated deep into the matrix, forming a three dimensional, branched and interconnected cell community. Conversely, MSCs on the control gels lacking gelatin moieties formed isolated spheroids with rounded cell morphology. After 28 days of culture on HA-gHGP, Type I collagen production and mineral deposition were detected in the absence of osteogenic supplements, suggesting induction of osteogenic differentiation. In contrast, cells on the control gels expressed markers for adipogenesis. Overall, the HA-gHGP composite matrix has great promise for directing the osteogenic differentiation of MSCs by providing an adaptable environment through the spatial presentation of cell-adhesive modules.
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