Soft hydrogel particles with tunable mechanical properties are promising for next-generation therapeutic applications. This is due to the increasingly proven role that physicochemical properties play in particulate-based delivery vectors, both in vitro and in vivo. The ability to understand and quantify the mechanical properties of such systems is therefore essential to optimize function and performance. We report control over the mechanical properties of poly(methacrylic acid) (PMA) hydrogel particles based on a mesoporous silica templating method. The mechanical properties of the obtained particles can be finely tuned through variation of the cross-linker concentration, which is hereby quantified using a cross-linking polymer with a fluorescent tag. We demonstrate that the mechanical properties of the particles can be elucidated using an atomic force microscopy (AFM) force spectroscopy method, which additionally allows for the study of hydrogel material properties at the nanoscale through high-resolution force mapping. Youngs modulus and stiffness of the particles were tuned between 0.04 and 2.53 MPa and between 1.6 and 28.4 mN/m, respectively, through control over the cross-linker concentration. The relationship between the concentration of the cross-linker added and the amount of adsorbed polymer was observed to follow a Langmuir isotherm, and this relationship was found to correlate linearly with the particle mechanical properties.
Best, James P., Jiwei Cui, Markus Mullner, Frank Caruso