Do the properties of gels constructed by interlinking triply-responsive microgels follow from those of the building blocks?
Microgels (MGs) are swellable crosslinked polymer colloids. They can also be used as the only building block to construct nanostructured hydrogels which are denoted as doubly crosslinked microgels (DX MGs). Here, new triply responsive DX MGs comprised of interlinked MGs of oligo(ethylene glycol)methacrylate (OEGMA), 2-(2-methoxyethoxy)ethyl methacrylate (MEO2MA), methacrylic acid (MAA) and a o-nitrobenzyl-based UV photocleavable crosslinker are investigated. The MGs swelled or collapsed in response to temperature and pH changes. These behaviours were rationalised with a generic model using Monte Carlo simulations. The MGs also degraded when UV irradiated due to photocleavage of nPh. DX MGs were assembled from the MGs to give injectable gels that were not cytotoxic to nucleus pulposus cells. Comparison of the responsive properties of the DX MGs and MGs showed that the temperature and pH responses of the former were mostly governed by the latter. However, two key differences were found. Firstly, whilst increasing the crosslinker mol% in the MG building blocks (x) did not change MG particle swelling, the compression modulus (E) and swelling of the DX MG gels were strongly affected by x. The E value for the gels was tuneable using x which is a potentially useful new observation for DX MGs. Secondly, UV irradiation of the DX MGs enhanced gel mechanical photostability in contrast to the behaviour of the MGs. We find that the properties of the DX MGs do not simply follow those of the parent MGs and propose mechanisms to account for the differences. The new family of multi-responsive DX MGs presented in this study have potential application for soft tissue repair as injectable gels or as gel implants which report sterilisation.