The extracellular matrix (ECM) is a complex, hierarchical material containing structural and bioactive components. This complexity makes decoupling the effects of biomechanical properties and cell-matrix interactions difficult, especially when studying cellular processes in a 3D environment. Matrix mechanics and cell adhesion are both known regulators of specific cellular processes such as stem cell proliferation and differentiation. However, more information is required about how such variables impact various neural lineages that could, upon transplantation, therapeutically improve neural function after a central nervous system injury or disease. Rapidly Assembling Pentapeptides for Injectable Delivery (RAPID) hydrogels are one biomaterial approach to meet these goals, consisting of a family of peptide sequences that assemble into physical hydrogels in physiological media. In this study, we studied our previously reported supramolecularly-assembling RAPID hydrogels functionalized with the ECM-derived cell-adhesive peptide ligands RGD, IKVAV, and YIGSR. Using molecular dynamics simulations and experimental rheology, we demonstrated that these integrin-binding ligands at physiological concentrations (3–12 m<sc>m</sc>) did not impact the assembly of the KYFIL peptide system. In simulations, molecular measures of assembly such as hydrogen bonding and pi-pi interactions appeared unaffected by cell-adhesion sequence or concentration. Visualizations of clustering and analysis of solvent-accessible surface area indicated that the integrin-binding domains remained exposed. KYFIL or AYFIL hydrogels containing 3 m<sc>m</sc> of integrin-binding domains resulted in mechanical properties consistent with their non-functionalized equivalents. This strategy of doping RAPID gels with cell-adhesion sequences allows for the precise tuning of peptide ligand concentration, independent of the rheological properties. The controllability of the RAPID hydrogel system provides an opportunity to investigate the effect of integrin-binding interactions on encapsulated neural cells to discern how hydrogel microenvironment impacts growth, maturation, or differentiation.
Plain Language Summary
Small molecules can assemble together into larger structures to impact biological outcomes. One such type of assembly occurs between peptides, short chains of amino acids bonded together. When carefully designed, some peptides can assemble into fibers and hydrogels. However, adding additional amino acids to the peptide, in order to have a different biological effect, may interfere with the structural assembly. This paper examines how some peptide modifications may or may not interrupt assembly. We use both computational simulations and experimental methods to characterize material mechanical properties. Our results indicate that at concentrations appropriate for biological systems, the modifications do not dramatically impact peptide assembly.