Glycosaminoglycan-based hydrogels to modulate heterocellular communication in in vitro angiogenesis models
Angiogenesis, the outgrowth of blood vessels, is crucial in development, disease and regeneration. Studying angiogenesis in vitro remains challenging because the capillary morphogenesis of endothelial cells (ECs) is controlled by multiple exogenous signals. Therefore, a set of in situ-forming starPEG-heparin hydrogels was used to identify matrix parameters and cellular interactions that best support EC morphogenesis. We showed that a particular type of soft, matrix metalloproteinase-degradable hydrogel containing covalently bound integrin ligands and reversibly conjugated pro-angiogenic growth factors could boost the development of highly branched, interconnected, and lumenized endothelial capillary networks. Using these effective matrix conditions, 3D heterocellular interactions of ECs with different mural cells were demonstrated that enabled EC network modulation and maintenance of stable vascular capillaries over periods of about one month in vitro. The approach was also shown to permit in vitro tumor vascularization experiments with unprecedented levels of control over both ECs and tumor cells. In total, the introduced 3D hydrogel co-culture system could offer unique options for dissecting and adjusting biochemical, biophysical, and cell-cell triggers in tissue-related vascularization models.