Making Synthetic Hydrogels Better Extracellular Matrix Mimics


Extracellular matrix (ECM) mimics are used in a wide range of applications in cell culture, tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and the fast-growing market of bioprinting. Like the ECM itself, which is the non-cellular component present within all tissues and organs, they provide structural, biological and mechanical support which allows cells to survive, grow, migrate and differentiate and help maintain normal homeostasis. Often such ECM mimics come the form of hydrogels, and can be either naturally-derived or synthetic, with both having theirs benefits.

Naturally-derived materials have inherent biological properties which can more closely mimic the in vivo cell environment, often providing cell adhesion sites and great biocompatibility for cells. Hydrogel materials such as collagen or the complex protein mixture Matrigel are widely used in research, and have allowed the generation of a multitude of invaluable cell culture data as a result. There can be drawbacks associated with the use of these naturally-derived ECM mimics however, as batch to batch consistency is renowned for being variable which can be troublesome for sensitive or long term experiments. Often, temperature dependency/sensitivity of these materials can cause practical issues for users e.g. having to chill equipment and work on ice to maintain an optimum temperature can impart added complexities to experimental procedures.

Synthetic ECM mimics are increasingly being used as they can provide solutions to some of the issues that naturally-derived materials pose. The main benefit of synthetic hydrogels is consistency. There should be no batch to batch variations as they are produced using known quantities, optimised procedure, and generally the chemistry of the polymer does not change unless required. As they are synthetic, there are no components from animal-derived sources which can be an important factor for cell culture and tissue engineering research with the ultimate aim of clinical applicability. Synthetic ECM mimics also have the advantage of being carefully manipulated to suit an individual application. This can be done by tailoring the physical properties, but also by controlling the chemical structure of the materials. For example, the ability to incorporate biomimetic peptide sequences such as the RGD motif from fibronectin , or GFOGER from collagen at carefully controlled concentrations can be crucial for many synthetic matrices to provide good cell recognition sites. Indeed, with the addition of such components at similar concentrations to those found in vivo, synthetic ECM mimics have the potential to rival their naturally derived counterparts.

The ability to combine the benefits of both naturally-derived and synthetic hydrogel matrices could provide a product which would mimic the biological, mechanical and structural support found in native ECMs, but with batch to batch consistency, easy handling and the ability to manipulate. A totally synthetic ECM containing a combination of biomimetic peptides sequences would provide the user with a more consistent product, whilst still retaining biologically active sites found in protein-based matrices.

Biogelx currently provides 5 off the shelf synthetic hydrogel products including 4 containing biomimetic peptide sequences from ECM proteins fibronectin, laminin, and collagen  (RGD, IKVAV, YIGSR and GFOGER respectively), each demonstrating benefits to different cell types. We are excited to share that we have been developing our next generation of peptide hydrogel product! In this single product we combine such biomimetic sequences in ratios which match the protein composition of a highly effective naturally-derived hydrogel product, and thus more closely mimic the natural ECM. With this new product, we hope to bring users the best of both worlds, providing the biological relevance of naturally-derived materials with the consistency of a synthetic hydrogel. Watch this space for more info and details on the lauch!


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