The ability to replicate in vitro the native extracellular matrix (ECM) features and to control the three-dimensional (3D) cell organization plays a fundamental role in obtaining functional engineered bioconstructs. In tissue engineering (TE) applications, hydrogels have been successfully implied as biomatrices for 3D cell embedding, exhibiting high similarities to the natural ECM and holding easily tunable mechanical properties. In the present study, we characterized a promising photocrosslinking process to generate cell-laden methacrylate gelatin (GelMA) hydrogels in the presence of VA-086 photoinitiator using a ultraviolet LED source. We investigated the influence of prepolymer concentration and light irradiance on mechanical and biomimetic properties of resulting hydrogels. In details, the increasing of gelatin concentration resulted in enhanced rheological properties and shorter polymerization time. We then defined and validated a reliable photopolymerization protocol for cell embedding (1.5% VA-086, LED 2 mW/cm(2) ) within GelMA hydrogels, which demonstrated to support bone marrow stromal cells viability when cultured up to 7 days. Moreover, we showed how different mechanical properties, derived from different crosslinking parameters, strongly influence cell behavior. In conclusion, this protocol can be considered a versatile tool to obtain biocompatible cell-laden hydrogels with properties easily adaptable for different TE applications. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Biomed Mater Res Part A, 2014.
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