Photolithographically assembled polyelectrolyte complexes as shape-directing templates for thermoreversible gels
Preparation of soft materials with diverse, customized shapes has been a topic of intense research interest. To this end, we have recently demonstrated photolithographic directed assembly as a strategy for customizing polyelectrolyte complex (PEC) shape. This process uses in situ photopolymerization of an anionic monomer in the presence of a cationic polymer, which drives localized PEC formation at the irradiation sites. Here, we show how such photolithographically assembled PECs can serve as structure-directing templates for tailoring the shapes of other soft materials; namely, thermoreversible gels. These templated hydrogels are prepared by adding a thermogelling polymer (agarose) to the anionic monomer/cationic polymer/photoinitiator precursor solutions so that, upon irradiation, custom-shaped PECs form within agarose gel matrices. Once these PECs are formed, the surrounding agarose gels are melted (through heating) and washed away which, upon returning the samples to room temperature, produces interpenetrating PEC/agarose gel networks with photopatterned shapes and dimensions. Dissolution of these sacrificial PEC templates in concentrated NaCl solutions then generates photolithographically templated agarose gels, whose shapes and dimensions match those of their PEC templates. Besides tuning their shapes and sizes, the mechanical properties of these gels can be easily tailored by varying the initial agarose concentrations used. Moreover, this PEC-templated gel synthesis appears to not adversely affect hydrogel cytocompatibility, suggesting its potential suitability for biological and biomedical applications. Though the present study uses only agarose as the model gel system, this PEC-based strategy for customizing gel shape can likely also be applied to other thermoreversible gel networks (e.g., those based on methylcellulose, poloxamers or thermoresponsive chitosan derivatives) and could have many attractive applications, ranging from drug delivery and tissue engineering, to sensing and soft robotics.