Templated Macroporous Polyethylene Glycol Hydrogels for Spheroid and Aggregate Cell Culture

Macroporous cell-laden hydrogels have recently gained recognition for a wide range of biomedical and bioengineering applications. There are various approaches to create porosity in hydrogels, including lyophilization or foam formation. However, many do not allow a precise control over pore size or are not compatible with in situ cell encapsulation. Here, we developed novel templated macroporous hydrogels by encapsulating uniform degradable hydrogel microspheres produced via microfluidics into a hydrogel slab. The microspheres degraded completely leaving macropores behind. Microsphere degradation was dependent on the incubation medium, microsphere size, microsphere confinement in the hydrogel as well as cell encapsulation. Uniquely, the degradable microspheres were biocompatible and when laden with cells, the cells were deposited in the macropores upon microsphere degradation and formed multicellular aggregates. The hydrogel-encapsulated cell aggregates were used in a small drug screen to demonstrate the relevance of cell–matrix interactions for multicellular spheroid drug responsiveness. Hydrogel-grown spheroid cultures are increasingly important in applications such as in vitro tumor, hepatocellular, and neurosphere cultures and drug screening; hence, the templated cell aggregate-laden hydrogels described here would find utility in various applications.