Nanoscale, 2019, vol 11, 16, pp. 7921-7930
Poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) based hydrogels are amongst the most studied synthetic hydrogels. However, reports on PEG-based hydrogels with high mechanical strength are limited. Herein, a class of novel, well-defined PEG-based nanocomposite hydrogels with tunable mechanical strength are synthesised via ring-opening reactions of diglycidyl ethers with carboxylate ions. The pH responsive crosslinked polyacid nanogels (NG) in the dispersed phase act as high functionality crosslinkers which covalently bond to the poly(ethylene glycol) diglycidyl ethers (PEGDGE) as the continuous matrix. A series of NG-x-PEG-y-z gels are prepared where x, y and z are concentrations of NGs, PEGDGE and the PEGDGE molecular weight, respectively. The hydrogel compositions and nano-structural homogeneity of the NGs have strong impact on the enhancement of mechanical properties which enables property tuning. Based on this design, a highly compressive PEG-based nanocomposite hydrogel (NG-13-PEG-20-6000) exhibits a compressive stress of 24.2 MPa, compressive fracture strain greater than 98% and a fracture energy density as high as 1.88 MJ m−3. The tensile fracture strain is 230%. This is amongst one of the most compressive PEG-based hydrogels reported to-date. Our chemically crosslinked gels are resilient and show highly recoverable dissipative energy. The cytotoxicity test shows that human nucleus pulposus (NP) cells remained viable after 8 days of culture time. The overall results highlight their potential for applications as replacements for intervertebral discs or articular cartilages.