Theses Doctoral

Development of a Fibrous, Collagen-Based Analog of the Extracellular Matrix

Brudnicki, Philip Andrew Patrick

Connective tissue extracellular matrix (ECM) consists of an interwoven network of contiguous collagen fibers that inform cell activity, direct biological function, and guide tissue homeostasis throughout life. Recently, ECM analogs have emerged as a unique ex vivo culture platform for studying healthy and diseased tissues and in the latter, enabling the screening for and development of therapeutic regimen.

Unfortunately, current commonly used platforms, such as tissue-culture polystyrene (TCPS) or the basement membrane matrix, Matrigel, fail to fully recapitulate the physical and biochemical properties of the ECM. Tissue-culture polystyrene is significantly stiffer than typical ECM tissues and lacks the composition and 3-dimensional architecture that is critical for ECM function. Improving upon TCPS’s shortcomings, Matrigel retains a natural ECM structure and is comprised of native biopolymers. However, it is derived from mouse sarcomas, and thus, has significant batch-to-batch variability and often contains growth factors at non-physiologic concentrations. Moreover, despite being biopolymer based, Matrigel has relatively low amounts of type I collagen and high levels of type IV collagen, and as such, compositionally does not match the predominantly type I collagen matrix intrinsic to connective tissues.

Thus, it is clear that new and improved models of the ECM are needed for in vitro culture. In pursuit of developing a highly biomimetic ECM analog, the objectives of this work were three-fold— first, to fabricate collagen-based ECM analogs with nanoscale mimicry, second, to systematically optimize crosslinking protocols in order to produce a stable substrate with continuous fibrous architecture, and third, to evaluate the substrate’s biocompatibility and utility as a platform for studying biomineralization. It was hypothesized that an architecturally and chemically relevant fibrous substrate could be prepared from gelatin and provide an optimal ex vivo platform for cell culture and new therapy screening and development. Thus, the ECM analog will be collagen-like, biocompatible, consist of continuous fibers, demonstrate both viscoelastic and elastic behavior, exhibit relevant mechanical properties, and remain stable for at least 14 days at cell culture conditions.

To this end, first, a “green” electrospinning method was developed for preparing fibrous meshes from gelatin, which avoids typical electrospinning solvents that present significant health risks and barriers to large scale production. Next, crosslinking methods were developed using the reactive dialdehyde, glutaraldehyde (GTA), and the naturally derived enzyme, transglutaminase (TGase). These methods stabilized the meshes for over 28 days under cell culture conditions without disrupting its biomimetic architectures and chemical properties. In addition, a third approach to mesh fabrication using gelatin methacryloyl (gelMA) was developed to overcome the shortcomings of GTA and TGase crosslinking. With gelMA, the number of crosslinking sites were customized and, by taking advantage of its ability to undergo free radical polymerization, stable fibrous meshes were prepared with reproducible architecture, chemistry, and tunable mechanical properties.

Following fabrication, the biocompatibility of the meshes was evaluated through macrophage, stem cell, and differentiated cell cultures. During culture, the macrophages maintained a naïve, non-polarized state, indicating they were not triggered towards an inflammatory response by the meshes. In addition, fibrochondrocytes, a cell critical for maintaining the collagen-based matrices where ligaments attach to bone, remained viable and maintained phenotypic expression on the meshes, as evident by their enhanced proteoglycan and collagen production relative to TCPS cultures. After demonstrating biocompatibility, the gelatin platform was coupled with a synthetic matrix vesicle (SMV) system and successfully acted as a mineralization platform in the presence of human osteoblast-like cells. Additionally, the platform supported mesenchymal stem cell expansion and mineralization when cultured with an alkaline phosphate conjugated SMV.

In this work, three unique methods were developed for preparing ECM analogs. These efforts led to the production of a collagen-like mesh with nano- and micro-scale cues, fibrous continuity with little batch-to-batch variability, and proven stability in both dry and wet conditions. Importantly, these meshes did not instigate any inflammatory responses and supported fibrochondrocyte, osteoblast, and stem cell culture. Furthermore, the mesh successfully functioned as a template for biomineralization using both human osteoblast-like cells and stem cells. Collectively these findings demonstrate the potential of a collagen-like ECM analog with physiological relevance for ex vivo cell culture studies; and furthermore, its potential as a high-fidelity platform for studying cell-mediated biomineralization, cell-matrix interactions, and developing new therapeutic approaches for the treatment of connective tissue disorders.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-07-22.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Biomedical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Lu, Helen H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 3, 2022