3B's Research Group, I3Bs-Research Institute on Biomaterials, Biodegradables and Biomimetics, University of Minho, Headquarters of the European Institute of Excellence on Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, Guimarães, Portugal. Electronic address: [Email]
The poor healing capacity of tendons is known to worsen in the elderly. During tendon aging and degeneration, endogenous human tendon stem/progenitor cells (hTSPCs) experience profound pathological changes. Here, we explored a rejuvenation strategy for hTSPCs derived from aged/degenerated Achilles tendons (A-TSPCs) by providing three-dimensional (3D) nanofiber hydrogels and comparing them to young/healthy TSPCs (Y-TSPCs). RADA peptide hydrogel has a self-assembling ability, forms a nanofibrous 3D niche and can be further functionalized by adding RGD motifs. Cell survival, apoptosis, and proliferation assays demonstrated that RADA and RADA/RGD hydrogels support A-TSPCs in a comparable manner to Y-TSPCs. Moreover, they rejuvenated A-TSPCs to a phenotype similar to that of Y-TSPCs, as evidenced by restored cell morphology and cytoskeletal architecture. Transmission electron, confocal laser scanning and atomic force microscopies demonstrated comparable ultrastructure, surface roughness and elastic modulus of A- and Y-TSPC-loaded hydrogels. Lastly, quantitative PCR revealed similar expression profiles, as well a significant upregulation of genes related to tenogenesis and multipotency. Taken together, the RADA-based hydrogels exert a rejuvenating effect by recapitulating in vitro specific features of the natural microenvironment of human TSPCs, which strongly indicates their potential to direct cell behaviour and overcome the challenge of cell aging and degeneration in tendon repair.