Control of thiol-maleimide reaction kinetics in PEG hydrogel networks
Abstract Michael-type addition reactions are widely used to polymerize biocompatible hydrogels. The thiol-maleimide modality achieves the highest macromer coupling efficiency of the reported Michael-type pairs, but the resulting hydrogel networks are heterogeneous because polymerization is faster than the individual components can be manually mixed. The reactivity of the thiol dictates the overall reaction speed, which can be slowed in organic solvents and acidic buffers. Since these modifications also reduce the biocompatibility of resulting hydrogels, we investigated a series of biocompatible buffers and crosslinkers to decelerate gelation while maintaining high cell viability. We found that lowering the polymer weight percentage (wt%), buffer concentration, and pH slowed gelation kinetics, but crosslinking with an electronegative peptide was optimal for both kinetics and cell viability. Including a high glucose medium supplement in the polymer solvent buffer improved the viability of the cells being encapsulated without impacting gelation time. Slowing the speed of polymerization resulted in more uniform hydrogels, both in terms of visual inspection and the diffusion of small molecules through the network. However, reactions that were too slow resulted in non-uniform particle dispersion due to settling, thus there is a trade-off in hydrogel network uniformity versus cell distribution in the hydrogels when using these networks in cell applications. Statement of Significance The polymer network of thiol-maleimide hydrogels assembles faster than individual components can be uniformly mixed due to their fast gelation kinetics. The lack of homogeneity can result in variable cell-based assay results, resulting in batch-to-batch variability and limiting their use in predictive screening assays. Although these hydrogels are incredibly useful in tissue engineering, this network heterogeneity is a known problem in the field. We screened a variety of possible techniques to slow down the reaction speed and improve the homogeneity of these hydrogels, without sacrificing the viability and distribution of encapsulated cells. As others have reported, an electronegative crosslinker was the most effective technique to slow the reaction, but the chemical modification required is technically challenging. Of interest to a broad community, we screened buffer type, strength, and crosslinker electronegativity to find an optimal reaction speed that allows for high cell viability and small molecule diffusion, without allowing cells to settle during gelation, allowing application of these materials to the drug screening industry and tissue engineering community. Graphical abstract [DISPLAY OMISSION]
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