Photopolymerized poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) hydrogels were used as a base platform for the encapsulation and culture of human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). The base PEG formulation presents an environment completely devoid of cell-matrix interactions. As such, viability of hMSCs in unmodified PEG hydrogels is very low. This formulation was modified to contain pendant phosphate groups to facilitate the sequestering of osteopontin within the gel, as well as pendant cell-adhesive RGD peptide sequences, which are found in osteopontin and other cell adhesion proteins. The survivability of hMSCs was examined with culture time and as a function of the gel chemistry to examine the role of cell-matrix interactions in promoting long-term viability. In the absence of any adhesive ligands, hMSC viability drops to 15% after 1 week in culture. However, by incorporating the RGD sequence or pendant phosphate groups this low viability was rescued to 75% and 97%, respectively. It is believed that the phosphate groups promote mineralization of the hydrogel network, and this mineral phase sequesters cell-secreted osteopontin, resulting in enhanced cell-matrix interactions and improved cell viability.
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