Enhanced Mechanical Properties in Cellulose Nanocrystal–Poly(oligoethylene glycol methacrylate) Injectable Nanocomposite Hydrogels through Control of Physical and Chemical Cross-Linking
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While injectable hydrogels have several advantages in the context of biomedical use, their generally weak mechanical properties often limit their applications. Herein, we describe in situ-gelling nanocomposite hydrogels based on poly(oligoethylene glycol methacrylate) (POEGMA) and rigid rod-like cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) that can overcome this challenge. By physically incorporating CNCs into hydrazone cross-linked POEGMA hydrogels, macroscopic properties including gelation rate, swelling kinetics, mechanical properties, and hydrogel stability can be readily tailored. Strong adsorption of aldehyde- and hydrazide-modified POEGMA precursor polymers onto the surface of CNCs promotes uniform dispersion of CNCs within the hydrogel, imparts physical cross-links throughout the network, and significantly improves mechanical strength overall, as demonstrated by quartz crystal microbalance gravimetry and rheometry. When POEGMA hydrogels containing mixtures of long and short ethylene oxide side chain precursor polymers were prepared, transmission electron microscopy reveals that phase segregation occurs with CNCs hypothesized to preferentially locate within the stronger adsorbing short side chain polymer domains. Incorporating as little as 5 wt % CNCs results in dramatic enhancements in mechanical properties (up to 35-fold increases in storage modulus) coupled with faster gelation rates, decreased swelling ratios, and increased stability versus hydrolysis. Furthermore, cell viability can be maintained within 3D culture using these hydrogels independent of the CNC content. These properties collectively make POEGMA-CNC nanocomposite hydrogels of potential interest for various biomedical applications including tissue engineering scaffolds for stiffer tissues or platforms for cell growth.
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