Synthetic hydrogels with tunable properties are appealing for regenerative medicine. A critical limitation in hydrogel design at low solids concentration is the formation of defects, which increase gelation times and swelling, and reduce elasticity. Here, we report that trifunctional cross-linking peptides applied to 4-arm poly-(ethylene glycol) (PEG) hydrogels decreased swelling and gelation time relative to bi-functional crosslinkers. In contrast to bi-functional peptides, the third cross-linking site on the peptide created a branch point if an intramolecular cross-link formed, which prevented non-functional "dangling-ends" in the hydrogel network and enhanced the number of elastically active cross-links. The improved network formation enabled mouse ovarian follicle encapsulation and maturation in vitro. Hydrogels with bi-functional crosslinkers resulted in cellular dehydration, likely due to osmosis during the prolonged gelation. For trifunctional crosslinkers, the hydrogels supported a 17-fold volumetric expansion of the tissue during culture, with expansion dependent on the ability of the follicle to rearrange its microenvironment, which is controlled through the sensitivity of the cross-linking peptide to the proteolytic activity of plasmin. The improved network design enabled ovarian follicle culture in a completely synthetic system, and can advance fertility preservation technology for women facing premature infertility from anticancer therapies.
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