Gradient Hydrogels for Optimizing Niche Cues to Enhance Cell-Based Cartilage Regeneration

Tissue Eng Part A. 2021 Jul;27(13-14):929-939. doi: 10.1089/ten.TEA.2020.0158. Epub 2020 Oct 19.


Hydrogels have been widely used for cell delivery to enhance cell-based therapies for cartilage tissue regeneration. To better support cartilage deposition, it is imperative to determine hydrogel formulation with physical and biochemical cues that are optimized for different cell populations. Previous attempts to identify optimized hydrogels rely mostly on testing hydrogel formulations with discrete properties, which are time-consuming and require large amounts of cells and materials. Gradient hydrogels encompass a range of continuous changes in niche properties, therefore offering a promising solution for screening a wide range of cell-niche interactions using less materials and time. However, harnessing gradient hydrogels to assess how matrix stiffness modulates cartilage formation by different cell types in vivo have never been investigated before. The goal of this study is to fabricate gradient hydrogels for screening the effects of varying hydrogel stiffness on cartilage formation by mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and chondrocytes, respectively, the two most commonly used cell populations for cartilage regeneration. We fabricated stiffness gradient hydrogels with tunable dimensions that support homogeneous cell encapsulation. Using gradient hydrogels with tunable stiffness range, we found MSCs and chondrocytes exhibit opposite trend in cartilage deposition in response to stiffness changes in vitro. Specifically, MSCs require soft hydrogels with Young's modulus less than 5 kPa to support faster cartilage deposition, as shown by type II collagen and sulfated glycosaminoglycan staining. In contrast, chondrocytes produce cartilage more effectively in stiffer matrix (>20 kPa). We chose optimal ranges of stiffness for each cell population for further testing in vivo using a mouse subcutaneous model. Our results further validated that soft matrix (Young's modulus <5 kPa) is better in supporting MSC-based cartilage deposition in three-dimensional, whereas stiffer matrix (Young's modulus >20 kPa) is more desirable for supporting chondrocyte-based cartilage deposition. Our results show the importance of optimizing niche cues in a cell-type-specific manner and validate the potential of using gradient hydrogels for optimizing niche cues to support cartilage regeneration in vitro and in vivo. Impact statement The present study validates the utility of gradient hydrogels for determining optimal hydrogel stiffness for supporting cartilage regeneration using both chondrocytes and stem cells. We demonstrate that such gradient hydrogels can be used for fast optimizing matrix stiffness for specific cell type to support optimal cartilage regeneration. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of applying gradient hydrogels for assessing optimal niche cues that support tissue regeneration in vivo and may be used for assessing optimal niche cues for different cell types to regeneration of different tissues.

Keywords: cartilage; gradient; hydrogels; in vivo; stiffness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cartilage
  • Chondrocytes
  • Chondrogenesis
  • Cues*
  • Hydrogels* / pharmacology


  • Hydrogels