Full-thickness skin equivalents are gathering increased interest as skin grafts for the treatment of large skin defects or chronic wounds or as nonanimal test platforms. However, their fibroblast-mediated contraction and poor mechanical stability lead to disadvantages toward their reproducibility and applicability in vitro and in vivo. To overcome these pitfalls, we aimed to chemically cross-link the dermal layer of a full-thickness skin model composed of a collagen type I hydrogel. Using a noncytotoxic four-arm succinimidyl glutarate polyethylene glycol (PEG-SG), cross-linking could be achieved in cell seeded collagen hydrogels. A concentration of 0.5 mg of PEG-SG/mg of collagen led to a viability comparable to non-cross-linked collagen hydrogels and no increased release of intracellular lactate dehydrogenase. Cross-linked collagen hydrogels were more mechanically stable and less prone to enzymatic degradation via collagenase when compared with non-cross-linked collagen hydrogels. Remarkably, during 21 days, cross-linked collagen hydrogels maintain their initial surface area, whereas standard dermal models contracted up to 50%. Finally, full-thickness skin equivalents were generated by seeding human epidermal keratinocytes on the surface of the equivalents and culturing these equivalents at an air-liquid interface. Immunohistochemical stainings of the cross-linked model revealed well-defined epidermal layers including an intact stratum corneum and a dermal part with homogeneously distributed human dermal fibroblasts. These results indicate that cross-linking of collagen with PEG-SG reduces contraction of collagen hydrogels and thus increases the applicability of these models as an additional tool for efficacy and safety assessment or a new generation of skin grafts.
Keywords: alternatives to animal testing; collagen; cross-linking; regenerative medicine; skin grafts; tissue engineering.