The common technique of growing cells in two-dimensions (2-D) is gradually being replaced by culturing cells on matrices with more appropriate composition and stiffness, or by encapsulation of cells in three-dimensions (3-D). The universal acceptance of the new 3-D paradigm has been constrained by the absence of a commercially available, biocompatible material that offers ease of use, experimental flexibility, and a seamless transition from in vitro to in vivo applications. The challenge – the puzzle that needs a solution – is to replicate the complexity of the native extracellular matrix (ECM) environment with the minimum number of components necessary to allow cells to rebuild and replicate a given tissue. For use in drug discovery, toxicology, cell banking, and ultimately in reparative medicine, the ideal matrix would therefore need to be highly reproducible, manufacturable, approvable, and affordable. Herein we describe the development of a set of modular components that can be assembled into biomimetic materials that meet these requirements. These semi-synthetic ECMs, or sECMs, are based on hyaluronan derivatives that form covalently crosslinked, biodegradable hydrogels suitable for 3-D culture of primary and stem cells in vitro, and for tissue formation in vivo. The sECMs can be engineered to provide appropriate biological cues needed to recapitulate the complexity of a given ECM environment. Specific applications for different sECM compositions include stem cell expansion with control of differentiation, scar-free wound healing, growth factor delivery, cell delivery for osteochondral defect and liver repair, and development of vascularized tumor xenografts for personalized chemotherapy.

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