Biomaterial-based scaffolds are promising tools for controlled immunomodulation. They can be applied as three dimensional (3D) culture systems in vitro, whereas in vivo they may be used to dictate cellular localization and exert spatiotemporal control over cues presented to the immune system. As such, scaffolds can be exploited to enhance the efficacy of cancer immunotherapies such as adoptive T cell transfer, in which localization and persistence of tumor-specific T cells dictates treatment outcome. Biomimetic polyisocyanopeptide (PIC) hydrogels are polymeric scaffolds with beneficial characteristics as they display reversible thermally-induced gelation at temperatures above 16°C, which allows for their minimally invasive delivery via injection. Moreover, incorporation of azide-terminated monomers introduces functional handles that can be exploited to include immune cell-modulating cues. Here, we explore the potential of synthetic PIC hydrogels to promote the in vitro expansion and in vivo local delivery of pre-activated T cells. We found that PIC hydrogels support the survival and vigorous expansion of pre-stimulated T cells in vitro even at high cell densities, highlighting their potential as 3D culture systems for efficient expansion of T cells for their adoptive transfer. In particular, the reversible thermo-sensitive behavior of the PIC scaffolds favors straightforward recovery of cells. PIC hydrogels that were injected subcutaneously gelated instantly in vivo, after which a confined 3D structure was formed that remained localized for at least 4 weeks. Importantly, we noticed no signs of inflammation, indicating that PIC hydrogels are non-immunogenic. Cells co-delivered with PIC polymers were encapsulated within the scaffold in vivo. Cells egressed gradually from the PIC gel and migrated into distant organs. This confirms that PIC hydrogels can be used to locally deliver cells within a supportive environment. These results demonstrate that PIC hydrogels are highly promising for both the in vitro expansion and in vivo delivery of pre-activated T cells. Covalent attachment of biomolecules onto azide-functionalized PIC polymers provides the opportunity to steer the phenotype, survival or functional response of the adoptively transferred cells. As such, PIC hydrogels can be used as valuable tools to improve current adoptive T cell therapy strategies.
Keywords: 3D culture; T cells; adoptive T cell transfer; biomaterial-based scaffold; injectable; polyisocyanopeptide hydrogel.