Human mesenchymal stromal cells (hMSCs) are of significant interest as a renewable source of therapeutically useful cells. In tissue engineering, hMSCs are implanted within a scaffold to provide enhanced capacity for tissue repair. The present study evaluates how mechanical properties of that scaffold can alter the phenotype and genotype of the cells, with the aim of augmenting hMSC differentiation along the myogenic, neurogenic or chondrogenic linages. The hMSCs were grown three-dimensionally (3D) in a hydrogel comprised of poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG)-conjugated to fibrinogen. The hydrogel's shear storage modulus (G'), which was controlled by increasing the amount of PEG-diacrylate cross-linker in the matrix, was varied in the range of 100-2000 Pascal (Pa). The differentiation into each lineage was initiated by a defined culture medium, and the hMSCs grown in the different modulus hydrogels were characterized using gene and protein expression. Materials having lower storage moduli (G' = 100 Pa) exhibited more hMSCs differentiating to neurogenic lineages. Myogenesis was favored in materials having intermediate modulus values (G' = 500 Pa), whereas chondrogenesis was favored in materials with a higher modulus (G' = 1000 Pa). Enhancing the differentiation pathway of hMSCs in 3D hydrogel scaffolds using simple modifications to mechanical properties represents an important achievement toward the effective application of these cells in tissue engineering.

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