Increased Survival and Function of Mesenchymal Stem Cell Spheroids Entrapped in Instructive Alginate Hydrogels

Stem Cells Transl Med. 2016 Jun;5(6):773-81. doi: 10.5966/sctm.2015-0211. Epub 2016 Apr 7.


Mesenchymal stem cell (MSC)-based therapies are under broad investigation for applications in tissue repair but suffer from poor cell persistence and engraftment upon transplantation. MSC spheroids exhibit improved survival, anti-inflammatory, and angiogenic potential in vitro, while also promoting vascularization when implanted in vivo. However, these benefits are lost once cells engage the tissue extracellular matrix and migrate from the aggregate. The efficacy of cell therapy is consistently improved when using engineered materials, motivating the need to investigate the role of biomaterials to instruct spheroid function. In order to assess the contribution of adhesivity on spheroid activity in engineered materials and promote the bone-forming potential of MSCs, we compared the function of MSC spheroids when entrapped in Arg-Gly-Asp (RGD)-modified alginate hydrogels to nonfouling unmodified alginate. Regardless of material, MSC spheroids exhibited reduced caspase activity and greater vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) secretion compared with equal numbers of dissociated cells. MSC spheroids in RGD-modified hydrogels demonstrated significantly greater cell survival than spheroids in unmodified alginate. After 5 days in culture, spheroids in RGD-modified gels had similar levels of apoptosis, but more than a twofold increase in VEGF secretion compared with spheroids in unmodified gels. All gels contained mineralized tissue 8 weeks after subcutaneous implantation, and cells entrapped in RGD-modified alginate exhibited greater mineralization versus cells in unmodified gels. Immunohistochemistry confirmed more diffuse osteocalcin staining in gels containing spheroids compared with dissociated controls. This study demonstrates the promise of cell-instructive biomaterials to direct survival and function of MSC spheroids for bone tissue engineering applications.

Significance: Mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) spheroids exhibit improved therapeutic potential in vitro compared with dissociated MSCs, yet spheroids are directly injected into tissues, ceding control of cell function to the extracellular matrix and potentially limiting the duration of improvement. Cell delivery using adhesive biomaterials promotes cell retention and function. These studies explored the role of adhesion to the surrounding matrix on spheroid function. When entrapped in an adhesive biomaterial, MSC spheroids exhibited improved survival and proangiogenic growth factor secretion in vitro and bone formation in vivo compared with cells in nonadhesive hydrogels. These findings demonstrate the value of deploying MSC spheroids in instructive biomaterials to improve cell function.

Keywords: Adhesion; Alginate; Mesenchymal stem cell; Osteogenesis; Spheroid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alginates / administration & dosage
  • Alginates / chemistry
  • Biocompatible Materials / administration & dosage
  • Biocompatible Materials / chemistry
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Extracellular Matrix
  • Glucuronic Acid / administration & dosage
  • Glucuronic Acid / chemistry
  • Hexuronic Acids / administration & dosage
  • Hexuronic Acids / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Hydrogels / administration & dosage
  • Hydrogels / chemistry
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Osteogenesis / drug effects
  • Spheroids, Cellular / cytology*
  • Spheroids, Cellular / drug effects
  • Tissue Engineering*


  • Alginates
  • Biocompatible Materials
  • Hexuronic Acids
  • Hydrogels
  • Glucuronic Acid