In this study, the cyto-compatibility and cellular functionality of cell-laden gelatin-methacryloyl (Gel-MA) hydrogels fabricated using a set of photo-initiators which absorb in 400-450 nm of the visible light range are investigated. Gel-MA hydrogels cross-linked using ruthenium (Ru) and sodium persulfate (SPS), are characterized to have comparable physico-mechanical properties as Gel-MA gels photo-polymerized using more conventionally adopted photo-initiators, such as 1-[4-(2-hydroxyethoxy)-phenyl]-2-hydroxy-2-methyl-1-propan-1-one (Irgacure 2959) and lithium phenyl(2,4,6-trimethylbenzoyl) phosphinate (LAP). It is demonstrated that the Ru/SPS system has a less adverse effect on the viability and metabolic activity of human articular chondrocytes encapsulated in Gel-MA hydrogels for up to 35 days. Furthermore, cell-laden constructs cross-linked using the Ru/SPS system have significantly higher glycosaminoglycan content and re-differentiation capacity as compared to cells encapsulated using I2959 and LAP. Moreover, the Ru/SPS system offers significantly greater light penetration depth as compared to the I2959 system, allowing thick (10 mm) Gel-MA hydrogels to be fabricated with homogenous cross-linking density throughout the construct. These results demonstrate the considerable advantages of the Ru/SPS system over traditional UV polymerizing systems in terms of clinical relevance and practicability for applications such as cell encapsulation, biofabrication, and in situ cross-linking of injectable hydrogels.
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