To translate recent advances in induced pluripotent stem cell biology to clinical regenerative medicine therapies, new strategies to control the co-delivery of cells and growth factors are needed. Building on our previous work designing Mixing-Induced Two-Component Hydrogels (MITCHs) from engineered proteins, here we develop protein-polyethylene glycol (PEG) hybrid hydrogels, MITCH-PEG, which form physical gels upon mixing for cell and growth factor co-delivery. MITCH-PEG is a mixture of C7, which is a linear, engineered protein containing seven repeats of the CC43 WW peptide domain (C), and 8-arm star-shaped PEG conjugated with either one or two repeats of a proline-rich peptide to each arm (P1 or P2, respectively). Both 20kDa and 40kDa star-shaped PEG variants were investigated, and all four PEG-peptide variants were able to undergo a sol-gel phase transition when mixed with the linear C7 protein at constant physiological conditions due to noncovalent hetero-dimerization between the C and P domains. Due to the dynamic nature of the C-P physical crosslinks, all four gels were observed to be reversibly shear-thinning and self-healing. The P2 variants exhibited higher storage moduli than the P1 variants, demonstrating the ability to tune the hydrogel bulk properties through a biomimetic peptide-avidity strategy. The 20kDa PEG variants exhibited slower release of encapsulated vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), due to a decrease in hydrogel mesh size relative to the 40kDa variants. Human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived endothelial cells (hiPSC-ECs) adopted a well-spread morphology within three-dimensional MITCH-PEG cultures, and MITCH-PEG provided significant protection from cell damage during ejection through a fine-gauge syringe needle. In a mouse hindlimb ischemia model of peripheral arterial disease, MITCH-PEG co-delivery of hiPSC-ECs and VEGF was found to reduce inflammation and promote muscle tissue regeneration compared to a saline control.
Peptide mimics of growth factors represent an emerging class of therapeutic drugs due to high biological specificity and relative ease of synthesis. However, maintaining efficacious therapeutic dosage at the therapy site has proven challenging owing to poor intestinal permeability and short circulating half-lives in the blood stream. In this work, we present the affinity immobilization and controlled release of QK, a vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) mimetic peptide, from an injectable mixing-induced two-component hydrogel (MITCH). The MITCH system is crosslinked by reversible interactions between WW domains and complementary proline-rich peptide modules. Fusion of the QK peptide to either one or two units of the proline-rich sequence creates bifunctional peptide conjugates capable of specific binding to MITCH while preserving their angiogenic bioactivity. Presenting two repeats of the proline-rich sequence increases the binding enthalpy 2.5 times due to avidity effects. Mixing of the drug conjugates with MITCH components results in drug encapsulation and extended release at rates consistent with the affinity immobilization strength. Human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) treated with the soluble drug conjugates exhibit morphogenetic events of VEGF receptor 2 signal transduction followed by cell migration and organization into networks characteristic of early angiogenesis. In a three-dimensional model where HUVECs were cultured as spheroids in a matrix of collagen and fibronectin, injection of drug-releasing MITCH resulted in significantly more cell outgrowth than drugs injected in saline. This ability to sustain local drug availability is ideal for therapeutic angiogenesis applications, where spatiotemporal control over drug distribution is a key requirement for clinical success.
Cell transplantation is a promising therapy for a myriad of debilitating diseases; however, current delivery protocols using direct injection result in poor cell viability. We demonstrate that during the actual cell injection process, mechanical membrane disruption results in significant acute loss of viability at clinically relevant injection rates. As a strategy to protect cells from these damaging forces, we hypothesize that cell encapsulation within hydrogels of specific mechanical properties will significantly improve viability. We use a controlled in vitro model of cell injection to demonstrate success of this acute protection strategy for a wide range of cell types including human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC), human adipose stem cells, rat mesenchymal stem cells, and mouse neural progenitor cells. Specifically, alginate hydrogels with plateau storage moduli (G) ranging from 0.33 to 58.1 Pa were studied. A compliant crosslinked alginate hydrogel (G=29.6 Pa) yielded the highest HUVEC viability, 88.9% ± 5.0%, while Newtonian solutions (i.e., buffer only) resulted in 58.7% ± 8.1% viability. Either increasing or decreasing the hydrogel storage modulus reduced this protective effect. Further, cells within noncrosslinked alginate solutions had viabilities lower than media alone, demonstrating that the protective effects are specifically a result of mechanical gelation and not the biochemistry of alginate. Experimental and theoretical data suggest that extensional flow at the entrance of the syringe needle is the main cause of acute cell death. These results provide mechanistic insight into the role of mechanical forces during cell delivery and support the use of protective hydrogels in future clinical stem cell injection studies.
Predictable tuning of bulk mechanics from the molecular level remains elusive in many physical hydrogel systems because of the reliance on nonspecific and nonstoichiometric chain interactions for network formation. We describe a mixing-induced two-component hydrogel (MITCH) system, in which network assembly is driven by specific and stoichiometric peptide-peptide binding interactions. By integrating protein science methodologies with a simple polymer physics model, we manipulate the polypeptide binding interactions and demonstrate the direct ability to predict the resulting effects on network cross-linking density, sol-gel phase behavior, and gel mechanics.
Current protocols to encapsulate cells within physical hydrogels require substantial changes in environmental conditions (pH, temperature, or ionic strength) to initiate gelation. These conditions can be detrimental to cells and are often difficult to reproduce, therefore complicating their use in clinical settings. We report the development of a two-component, molecular-recognition gelation strategy that enables cell encapsulation without environmental triggers. Instead, the two components, which contain multiple repeats of WW and proline-rich peptide domains, undergo a sol-gel phase transition upon simple mixing and hetero-assembly of the peptide domains. We term these materials mixing-induced, two-component hydrogels. Our results demonstrate use of the WW and proline-rich domains in protein-engineered materials and expand the library of peptides successfully designed into engineered proteins. Because both of these association domains are normally found intracellularly, their molecular recognition is not disrupted by the presence of additional biomolecules in the extracellular milieu, thereby enabling reproducible encapsulation of multiple cell types, including PC-12 neuronal-like cells, human umbilical vein endothelial cells, and murine adult neural stem cells. Precise variations in the molecular-level design of the two components including (i) the frequency of repeated association domains per chain and (ii) the association energy between domains enable tailoring of the hydrogel viscoelasticity to achieve plateau shear moduli ranging from approximately 9 to 50 Pa. Because of the transient physical crosslinks that form between association domains, these hydrogels are shear-thinning, injectable, and self-healing. Neural stem cells encapsulated in the hydrogels form stable three-dimensional cultures that continue to self-renew, differentiate, and sprout extended neurites.
Improved retention of transplanted stem cells is achieved through minimally invasive delivery in MITCH, a mixing-induced two-component hydrogel that was engineered to possess shear-thinning and self-healing thixotropic properties. MITCH, an ideal injectable cell-delivery vehicle, supports 3D stem-cell culture, resulting in high cell viability and physiologically relevant cell morphology.
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