Self-recovering dual cross-linked hydrogels based on bioorthogonal click chemistry and ionic interactions†
The biocompatible, injectable and high water-swollen nature of hydrogels makes them a popular candidate to imitate the extracellular matrix (ECM) for tissue engineering both in vitro and in vivo. However, commonly used covalently cross-linked hydrogels, despite their stability and tunability, are elastic and deteriorate as bulk material degrades which would impair proper cell function. To improve these deficiencies, here, we present a self-recovering cross-linked hydrogel formed instantaneously with functionalized poly(ethylene glycol) as a basis. We combine covalent cross-links introduced via a strain-promoted azide–alkyne cycloaddition (SPAAC) click reaction and non-covalent links between phosphonate groups and calcium ions. By adjusting the ratios of non-covalent and covalent cross-links, we synthesized these dual cross-linked (DC) hydrogels that displayed storage moduli below ∼2000 Pa and relaxation times from seconds to minutes. The gels recovered to 41–96% of their initial mechanical properties after two subsequent strain failures. Cryo-scanning electron microscopy revealed that DC hydrogels containing approximately equal amounts of covalent and non-covalent cross-links displayed phase separation. Finally, we functionalized the DC hydrogels by incorporating an integrin binding motif, RGDS, to provide a biocompatible environment for human mesenchymal stem cells (HMSCs) by facilitating adhesion inside the gel network. Inside these DC gels HSMCs displayed a viability up to 73% after five days of cell culture.