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    Automated fabrication of cell-instructive synthetic sulfonated and sulfated hydrogels

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    The extracellular matrix (ECM) is the highly hydrated, protein- and glycosaminoglycan- (GAG) based cell environment that provides cell-instructive cues like the mechanical stabilization of the cells and transmission of biochemical and physical signals. To biochemically and mechanically mimic the ECM, hydrogels with the highly negatively charged GAG heparin in interplay with a stabilizing polymer network are of high interest in biomaterial engineering. The application as cell-instructive materials allows for controlling transport processes of signaling molecules within the matrices, cell growth and differentiation behavior, and cellular fate decisions. In particular, heparin-based biomaterials enable targeted sequestration of signaling molecules on the one hand, but also sustained delivery of them with a lower necessary amount to be used, in contrast to the discontinuous application of solutes. In addition, heparin-based biomaterials can protect the loaded cargo from enzymatic degradation and conformational changes.[1]–[3] The affinity to signaling molecules as key feature provides the potential for applications in wound healing and tissue regeneration. Synthetic sulfonated polymers (SSPs) as synthetic heparin analogs can address multiple drawbacks of native heparin, such as its heterogeneous chemical structure and the potential risk of viral contamination from the animal isolation source.[4],[5] Due to a large number of molecular design opportunities in particular the degree of sulfation, sulfate volume concentration, sulfate or sulfonate nature, distance of the sulf(on)ate from the backbone, and hydrophobicity of the polymers, biochemical processes may be controlled in a targeted manner. The chemical possibilities for forming a hydrogel network based on SSPs are far more diverse with synthetic, freely designable polymers to achieve a targeted structure and chemical nature of the network. Here, the aim was to introduce a library of SSPs to replace heparin in fully synthetic hydrogels capable of modulating cell-instructive cues such as soluble factor signaling, adhesiveness, and growth behavior of integrated cells. Accordingly, a library of systematically varied SSPs differing in degree of sulfation, sulfate or sulfonate conjugation, hydrophobicity, and sulf(on)ate distance to the backbone have been synthesized from by polymer analog reaction of various sulf(on)ated amines with a polyacrylate (15 kDa, sodium salt) as the polymeric backbone. The polymers have been thoroughly characterized by proton nuclear magnetic resonance (1H-NMR), Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), asymmetric flow field flow fractionation (AF4) coupled light scattering analysis, and microscale thermophoresis (MST) for their molecular composition, stability in aqueous solution, conformation, and interaction with a chosen signal molecule. The affinity of the very stable coiled polymers under physiological conditions to signaling molecules depends mainly on the degree of sulfation, sulfate or sulfonate nature, and hydrophobicity. The SSPs are crosslinked with 4-arm star-shaped poly(ethylene glycol) (starPEG) either directly to form amide-crosslinked hydrogels or by pre-functionalization via Michael-type addition to prepare cell-instructive hydrogels, each with graded mechanical properties. The affinity of these hydrogels for various signaling molecules can be quantified compared to heparin-based ones and attributed to the influence of the degree of sulfation, sulfate volume concentration, sulfate or sulfonate nature, and hydrophobicity. The potential of SSPs in functional 3D tissue cultures could be confirmed by renal morphogenesis and neural network formation in the corresponding hydrogels by collaborators. Further on, the synthesis procedure of hydrogel precursors has been transferred to fully automated procedures. Because standardized production of cell-instructive hydrogels at low compositional and batch-to-batch variation and material compliance can benefit from high-throughput synthesis and liquid handling robots. An automated multistage workflow was developed to synthesize hydrogel precursors, carry out hydrogel formation, and execute cell culture experiments with cells embedded in the hydrogels. The protocol combines two robotic liquid handling systems and a microscope for automated sample imaging and cell analysis. The customized heparin and SSP maleimidation procedures, including temperature-regulated synthesis, purification, and aliquotation, were implemented on a customized liquid-handling robot. The resulting hydrogel precursors were analyzed for their maleimide conjugation efficiency and purity by 1H-NMR and conductivity measurements and for their hydrogel formation ability. This automated synthesis can ensure the quality and production of good manufacturing practice (GMP)-compliant hydrogel materials. Automated SSP hydrogel preparation, cell culture, and analysis can further promote combinatorial approaches to biomedical applications of cell-instructive materials. References [1] Lohmann, N.; Schirmer, L.; Atallah, P.; Wandel, E.; Ferrer, R. A.; Werner, C et al. Glycosaminoglycan-Based Hydrogels Capture Inflammatory Chemokines and Rescue Defective Wound Healing in Mice. Sci. Transl. Med. 2017, 9 (386), 1–12. [2] Schirmer, L.; Atallah, P.; Werner, C.; Freudenberg, U. StarPEG-Heparin Hydrogels to Protect and Sustainably Deliver IL-4. Adv. Healthc. Mater. 2016, 5 (24), 3157–3164. [3] Liang, Y.; Kiick, K. L. Heparin-Functionalized Polymeric Biomaterials in Tissue Engineering and Drug Delivery Applications. Acta Biomater. 2014, 10 (4), 1588–1600. [4] Blossom, D. B.; Kallen, A. J.; Patel, P. R.; Elward, A.; Robinson, L.; Gao, G. et al. Outbreak of Adverse Reactions Associated with Contaminated Heparin. N. Engl. J. Med. 2008, 359 (25), 2674–2684. [5] Hirsh, J.; Dalen, J. E.; Anderson, D. R.; Poller, L.; Bussey, H.; Ansell, J. et al. Oral Anticoagulants. Chest 1998, 114 (5), 445S-469S