For cell transplantation into damaged tissues, viable cells must be delivered to the defect site in a suitable carrier. However, the hypoxic and nutrient-limited environment in the carrier can induce massive cell death. The aims of this study were to increase the viability and regulate the behavior of osteoprogenitor cells encapsulated in alginate hydrogels through control of the gel microstructure. Cell survivability in alginate beads was improved through the use of α-MEM as the solvent for alginic acid sodium salt, and by CaCl(2) solutions, which supplied additional nutrients for the cells compared to water or buffer. The mesh size and shear modulus of the hydrogel were hypothesized to regulate proliferation and differentiation of osteoprogenitor cells. MC3T3-E1 cells demonstrated enhanced osteoblast differentiation when encapsulated in high-density alginate with smaller mesh size and more rigid mechanical properties, as confirmed by increased alkaline phosphatase activity and osteocalcin secretion. However, MC3T3-E1 cells encapsulated in low-density alginate beads with a larger mesh size and more compliant mechanical properties exhibited increased proliferation. These results demonstrate that the microstructure of alginate hydrogels can regulate the behavior of osteoprogenitor cells, thus suggesting that the tuning the properties of the gel may be a useful approach for enhancing new bone formation.
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