Thermo-responsive Diels-Alder stabilized hydrogels for ocular drug delivery of a corticosteroid and an anti-VEGF fab fragment

Blessing C. Ilochonwu a, Simone A. van der Lugt a, Ada Annala a, Greta Di Marco a, Thibault Sampon a, Juergen Siepmann b c, Florence Siepmann b c, Wim E. Hennink a, Tina Vermonden a

Published: September 2023

In the present study, a novel in situ forming thermosensitive hydrogel system was investigated as a versatile drug delivery system for ocular therapy. For this purpose, two thermosensitive ABA triblock copolymers bearing either furan or maleimide moieties were synthesized, named respectively poly(NIPAM-co-HEA/Furan)-PEG6K-P(NIPAM-co-HEA/Furan) (PNF) and poly(NIPAM-co-HEA/Maleimide)-PEG6K-P(NIPAM-co-HEA/-Maleimide) (PNM). Hydrogels were obtained upon mixing aqueous PNF and PNM solutions followed by incubation at 37 °C. The hydrogel undergoes an immediate (<1 min) sol-gel transition at 37 °C. In situ hydrogel formation at 37 °C was also observed after intravitreal injection of the formulation into an ex vivo rabbit eye. The hydrogel network formation was due to physical self-assembly of the PNIPAM blocks and a catalyst-free furan-maleimide Diels-Alder (DA) chemical crosslinking in the hydrophobic domains of the polymer network. Rheological studies demonstrated sol-gel transition at 23 °C, and DA crosslinks were formed in time within 60 min by increasing the temperature from 4 to 37 °C. When incubated at 37 °C, these hydrogels were stable for at least one year in phosphate buffer of pH 7.4. However, the gels degraded at basic pH 10 and 11 after 13 and 3 days, respectively, due to hydrolysis of ester bonds in the crosslinks of the hydrogel network. The hydrogel was loaded with an anti-VEGF antibody fragment (FAB; 48.4 kDa) or with corticosteroid dexamethasone (dex) by dissolving (FAB) or dispersing (DEX) in the hydrogel precursor solution. The FAB fragment in unmodified form was quantitatively released over 13 days after an initial burst release of 46, 45 and 28 % of the loading for the 5, 10 and 20 wt% hydrogel, respectively, due to gel dehydration during formation. The low molecular weight drug dexamethasone was almost quantitively released in 35 days. The slower release of dexamethasone compared to the FAB fragment can likely be explained by the solubilization of this hydrophobic drug in the hydrophobic domains of the gel. The thermosensitive gels showed good cytocompatibility when brought in contact with macrophage-like mural cells (RAW 264.7) and human retinal pigment epithelium-derived (ARPE-19) cells. This study demonstrates that PNF-PNM thermogel may be a suitable formulation for sustained release of bioactive agents into the eye for treating posterior segment eye diseases.

Keywords: Anti-VEGF; Dexamethasone; Diels-Alder; FAB; Hydrogel; In situ crosslinking; Injectability.

Full Access Link: Journal of Controlled Release