Modulating polymer chemistry to enhance non-viral gene delivery inside hydrogels with tunable matrix stiffness

Biomaterials. 2013 Dec;34(37):9657-65. doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2013.08.050. Epub 2013 Sep 5.


Non-viral gene delivery holds great promise for promoting tissue regeneration, and offers a potentially safer alternative than viral vectors. Great progress has been made to develop biodegradable polymeric vectors for non-viral gene delivery in 2D culture, which generally involves isolating and modifying cells in vitro, followed by subsequent transplantation in vivo. Scaffold-mediated gene delivery may eliminate the need for the multiple-step process in vitro, and allows sustained release of nucleic acids in situ. Hydrogels are widely used tissue engineering scaffolds given their tissue-like water content, injectability and tunable biochemical and biophysical properties. However, previous attempts on developing hydrogel-mediated non-viral gene delivery have generally resulted in low levels of transgene expression inside 3D hydrogels, and increasing hydrogel stiffness further decreased such transfection efficiency. Here we report the development of biodegradable polymeric vectors that led to efficient gene delivery inside poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG)-based hydrogels with tunable matrix stiffness. Photocrosslinkable gelatin was maintained constant in the hydrogel network to allow cell adhesion. We identified a lead biodegradable polymeric vector, E6, which resulted in increased polyplex stability, DNA protection and achieved sustained high levels of transgene expression inside 3D PEG-DMA hydrogels for at least 12 days. Furthermore, we demonstrated that E6-based polyplexes allowed efficient gene delivery inside hydrogels with tunable stiffness ranging from 2 to 175 kPa, with the peak transfection efficiency observed in hydrogels with intermediate stiffness (28 kPa). The reported hydrogel-mediated gene delivery platform using biodegradable polyplexes may serve as a local depot for sustained transgene expression in situ to enhance tissue engineering across broad tissue types.

Keywords: Gene therapy; Hydrogel; In-vitro test; Mechanical properties.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biocompatible Materials / chemistry*
  • DNA / administration & dosage*
  • Gelatin / chemistry*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Hardness
  • Humans
  • Hydrogels / chemistry*
  • Materials Testing
  • Methacrylates / chemistry*
  • Polyethylene Glycols / chemistry*
  • Transfection*


  • Biocompatible Materials
  • Hydrogels
  • Methacrylates
  • poly(ethylene glycol)-dimethacrylate
  • Polyethylene Glycols
  • Gelatin
  • DNA