Cell-laden methacrylated gelatin (GelMA) hydrogels with high (approximately 90%) transparency were prepared to mimic the natural form and function of corneal stroma. They were synthesized from GelMA with a methacrylation degree of 70% as determined by nuclear magnetic resonance. Hydrogels were strong enough to withstand handling. Stability studies showed that 87% of the GelMA hydrogels remained after 21 days in phosphate buffered saline (PBS). Cell viability in the first 2 days was over 90% for the human keratocytes loaded in the gels as determined with the live-dead analysis. Cells in the hydrogel elongated and connected to each other as observed by confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) images and scanning electron microscope analysis after 3 weeks in the culture medium and cells were seen to be distributed throughout the hydrogel bulk. Cells were found to synthesize collagen Types I and V, decorin, and biglycan (representative collagens and proteoglycans of human corneal stroma, respectively) showing that keratocytes maintained their functions and preserved their phenotypes in the hydrogels. Transparency of cell-loaded and cell-free hydrogels after 21 days was found to be over 90% at all time points in the visible light range and was comparable to the transparency of the native cornea. The corneal stroma equivalent produced in this study that has cells entrapped in it leads to a product with homogenous distribution of cells. It was transparent at the very beginning and is expected to allow better vision than nontransparent substrates. It, therefore, has a significant potential to be used as an alternative to the current products used to treat corneal blindness.
Keywords: GelMA; biomaterial; corneal stroma substitute; hydrogels; keratocytes; photopolymerizable; tissue engineering; transparency.
Copyright © 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.