In this study, we examined the capacity of a biomimetic pullulan-collagen hydrogel to create a functional biomaterial-based stem cell niche for the delivery of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) into wounds. Murine bone marrow-derived MSCs were seeded into hydrogels and compared to MSCs grown in standard culture conditions. Hydrogels induced MSC secretion of angiogenic cytokines and expression of transcription factors associated with maintenance of pluripotency and self-renewal (Oct4, Sox2, Klf4) when compared to MSCs grown in standard conditions. An excisonal wound healing model was used to compare the ability of MSC-hydrogel constructs versus MSC injection alone to accelerate wound healing. Injection of MSCs did not significantly improve time to wound closure. In contrast, wounds treated with MSC-seeded hydrogels showed significantly accelerated healing and a return of skin appendages. Bioluminescence imaging and FACS analysis of luciferase+/GFP+ MSCs indicated that stem cells delivered within the hydrogel remained viable longer and demonstrated enhanced engraftment efficiency than those delivered via injection. Engrafted MSCs were found to differentiate into fibroblasts, pericytes and endothelial cells but did not contribute to the epidermis. Wounds treated with MSC-seeded hydrogels demonstrated significantly enhanced angiogenesis, which was associated with increased levels of VEGF and other angiogenic cytokines within the wounds. Our data suggest that biomimetic hydrogels provide a functional niche capable of augmenting MSC regenerative potential and enhancing wound healing.
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