Extracellular matrix (ECM) remodeling is essential for the process of capillary morphogenesis. Here we employed synthetic poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) hydrogels engineered with proteolytic specificity to either matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), plasmin, or both to investigate the relative contributions of MMP- and plasmin-mediated ECM remodeling to vessel formation in a 3D-model of capillary self-assembly analogous to vasculogenesis. We first demonstrated a role for both MMP- and plasmin-mediated mechanisms of ECM remodeling in an endothelial-fibroblast co-culture model of vasculogenesis in fibrin hydrogels using inhibitors of MMPs and plasmin. When this co-culture model was employed in engineered PEG hydrogels with selective protease sensitivity, we observed robust capillary morphogenesis only in MMP-sensitive matrices. Fibroblast spreading in plasmin-selective hydrogels confirmed this difference was due to protease preference by endothelial cells, not due to limitations of the matrix itself. In hydrogels engineered with crosslinks that were dually susceptible to MMPs and plasmin, capillary morphogenesis was unchanged. These findings highlight the critical importance of MMP-mediated degradation during vasculogenesis and provide strong evidence to justify the preferential selection of MMP-degradable peptide crosslinkers in synthetic hydrogels used to study vascular morphogenesis and promote vascularization. © 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Biomed Mater Res Part B: Appl Biomater 107B:2507-2516, 2019.
Keywords: capillary morphogenesis; fibrin; matrix metalloproteinase; plasmin; poly(ethylene glycol).
© 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.