Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is the major regulating factor for the formation of new blood vessels, also known as angiogenesis. VEGF is often incorporated in synthetic scaffolds to promote vascularization and to enhance the survival of cells that have been seeded in these devices. Such applications require sustained local delivery of VEGF of around 4 weeks for stable blood vessel formation. Most delivery systems for VEGF only provide short-term release for a couple of days, followed by a release phase with very low VEGF release. We now have developed VEGF-loaded polymeric microspheres that provide sustained release of bioactive VEGF for 4 weeks. Blends of two swellable poly(ε-caprolactone)-poly(ethylene glycol)-poly(ε-caprolactone)-b-poly(l-lactide) ([PCL-PEG-PCL]-b-[PLLA])-based multiblock copolymers with different PEG content and PEG molecular weight were used to prepare the microspheres. Loading of the microspheres was established by a solvent evaporation-based membrane emulsification method. The resulting VEGF-loaded microspheres had average sizes of 40-50 μm and a narrow size distribution. Optimized formulations of a 50:50 blend of the two multiblock copolymers had an average VEGF loading of 0.79 ± 0.09%, representing a high average VEGF loading efficiency of 78 ± 16%. These microspheres released VEGF continuously over 4 weeks in phosphate-buffered saline pH 7.4 at 37 °C. This release profile was preserved after repeated and long-term storage at -20 °C for up to 9 months, thereby demonstrating excellent storage stability. VEGF release was governed by diffusion through the water-filled polymer matrix, depending on PEG molecular weight and PEG content of the polymers. The bioactivity of the released VEGF was retained within the experimental error in the 4-week release window, as demonstrated using a human umbilical vein endothelial cells proliferation assay. Thus, the microspheres prepared in this study are suitable for embedment in polymeric scaffolds with the aim of promoting their functional vascularization.
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