Nanostructured degradable macroporous hydrogel scaffolds with controllable internal morphologies via reactive electrospinning
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Creating micro/nanostructured hydrogels with tunable morphologies under cell-friendly processing conditions would enable rational engineering of hydrogel scaffolds for targeted biomedical applications. Herein, an all-aqueous single-step reactive electrospinning method is applied to prepare hydrogel networks with controlled morphologies on both the nanoscale and the microscale. Hydrazide and aldehyde-functionalized poly(oligo ethylene glycol methacrylate) (POEGMA) are co-spun from a double barrel syringe together with poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO) as an electrospinning aid. By varying the concentrations and molecular weights of PEO and/or POEGMA, various morphologies from pure fibers to beaded fibers to bead network morphologies with tunable bead sizes can be fabricated, all of which remain monolithically stable in water due to the dynamic covalent crosslinks formed within the gel structure. The rates and magnitudes of swelling, degradation, and mechanics of the resulting scaffolds can be tuned by independently controlling gel morphologies on the nanoscale (i.e. crosslink density within the gel) and the microscale (i.e. the network structure formed), with an atypical independence of swelling relative to the mechanics and degradation rate observed. Furthermore, the internal morphology of the networks is demonstrated to systematically alter both the cell responses within the scaffolds and the rate of protein release from the scaffolds, with small fibers showing optimal cell proliferation, bead networks exhibiting the slowest protein release kinetics and very high maintained cell viabilities post-electrospinning, and beaded fibers showing intermediate properties. STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE: Controlling the internal structure of hydrogels is critical to successfully applying hydrogels in biomedical applications such as tissue engineering or cell/drug delivery. However, current techniques to fabricate hydrogel scaffolds typically require additives or gelation processes that are poorly compatible with cells and/or require multi-step processes. In this paper, we describe the fabrication of hydrogel scaffolds with tunable feature sizes (from nanometer to micrometer scale) and structures (from all fibers to bead/fiber mixtures to a new "bead network" morphology) using a reactive electrospinning strategy leveraging dynamic hydrazone crosslinking. We show single-step cell/protein loading and systematic control over cell proliferation and protein release kinetics by systematically manipulating the scaffold morphologies and feature sizes, allowing facile customization of scaffold properties for targeted applications.
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