We have recently reported that retro Michael-type addition reactions can be employed for producing labile chemical linkages with tunable sensitivity to physiologically relevant reducing potentials. We reasoned that such strategies would also be useful in the design of glutathione-sensitive hydrogels for a variety of targeted delivery and tissue engineering applications. In this report, we describe hydrogels in which maleimide-functionalized low molecular weight heparin (LMWH) is crosslinked with various thiol-functionalized poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) multi-arm star polymers. Judicious selection of the chemical identity of the thiol permits tuning of degradation via previously unstudied, but versatile chemical methods. Thiol pKa and hydrophobicity affected both the gelation and degradation of these hydrogels. Maleimide–thiol crosslinking reactions and retro Michael-type addition reactions were verified with 1H NMR during the crosslinking and degradation of hydrogels. PEGs esterified with phenylthiol derivatives, specifically 4-mercaptophenylpropionic acid or 2,2-dimethyl-3-(4-mercaptophenyl)propionic acid, induced sensitivity to glutathione as shown by a decrease in hydrogel degradation time of 4-fold and 5-fold respectively, measured via spectrophotometric quantification of LMWH. The degradation proceeded through the retro Michael-type addition of the succinimide thioether linkage, with apparent pseudo-first order reaction constants derived from oscillatory rheology experiments of 0.039 ± 0.006 h−1 and 0.031 ± 0.003 h−1. The pseudo-first order retro reaction constants were approximately an order of magnitude slower than the degradation rate constants for hydrogels crosslinked via disulfide linkages, indicating the potential use of these Michael-type addition products for reduction-mediated release and/or degradation, with increased blood stability and prolonged drug delivery timescales compared to disulfide moieties.
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