Highly concentrated collagen solutions leading to transparent scaffolds of controlled three-dimensional organizations for corneal epithelial cell colonization†
This study aimed at controlling both the organization and the transparency of dense collagen scaffolds making use of the lyotropic mesogen properties of collagen. Cholesteric or plywood-like liquid crystal phases were achieved using mixtures of acetic and hydrochloric acids as solvents. The critical pH at which the switch between the two phases occurred was around pH = 3. The use of the two acids led to fibrillated collagen I scaffolds, whose visual aspect ranged from opaque to transparent. Rheological investigations showed that viscoelastic properties of the plywood-like solutions were optimized for molding due to faster recovery. They also confirmed the correlation between the elastic modulus and the diameter of collagen fibrils obtained after fibrillogenesis under ammonia vapor. Human corneal epithelial cells, grown from donor limbal explants, were cultured both on transparent plywood-like matrices and on human amniotic membranes for 14 days. The development of corneal epithelium and the preservation of epithelial stem cells were checked by optical microscopy, colony formation assay, immuno-fluorescence and quantitative polymerase chain reaction. A higher level of amplification of limbal stem cells was obtained with collagen matrices compared with amniotic membranes, showing the high biocompatibility of our scaffolds. We therefore suggest that collagen solutions presenting both plywood-like organization and transparency might be of interest for biomedical applications in ophthalmology.