In keeping with this biological design principle, an interpenetrating network (IPN) of PEG-diacrylate in agarose is synthesized and investigated as a novel composite material mimetic of the insect cuticle. The cuticle is largely composed of chitin fibers interpenetrated with a protein matrix. In this synthetic construct, agarose is selected to mimic the role of chitin and the PEG-diacrylate to mimic the role of the cuticular proteins. These materials were also selected because of their utility in a variety of biomedical applications. The interpenetrating networks are formed by photopolymerization of thermally gelled agarose gels soaked in aqueous solution of PEG-diacrylate (700 Da). The resulting IPN hydrogels as well as single networks of crosslinked PEG-diacrylate and agarose are investigated with respect to their compressive mechanical performance via transient and dynamic mechanical analysis. The toughness of initial formulations of agarose-PEG-DA gels has been determined to be 100 times greater than that of agarose and 5 times greater than that of a crosslinked PEG-diacrylate network. The biological potential of the synthesized networks is further established by demonstrating effective chondrocyte encapsulation with high long term cell viability within the novel biomaterial.
The mechanical properties obtained in macroscopic studies depend on the nanoscale material structure and mechanical properties as probed by submerged AFM. AFM is used to determine pore sizes and microscale organization of agarose and PEG-DA polymers. The heterogeneity of compression modulus on the micron scale is assessed, as this is considered an important parameter underlying the exceptional mechanical properties of interpenetrating networks.