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Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 312 / locate / drugdeliv

Hydrogels for biomedical applications

Allan S. Hoffman*
Bioengineering Department, Box 352255, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA
Received 26 July 2001; accepted 29 August 2001


This article reviews the composition and synthesis of hydrogels, the character of their absorbed water, and permeation of
solutes within their swollen matrices. The most important properties of hydrogels relevant to their biomedical applications
are also identified, especially for use of hydrogels as drug and cell carriers, and as tissue engineering matrices. 2002
Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Hydrogels; Drug delivery; Water; Pores; Tissue engineering


1. Introduction ............................................................................................................................................................................ 3
2. Water in hydrogels .................................................................................................................................................................. 5
3. Pores and permeation in hydrogels ........................................................................................................................................... 8
4. Hydrogels as tissue engineering matrices .................................................................................................................................. 9
References .................................................................................................................................................................................. 10

Abbreviations: CD, cyclodextrin; DX, p-dioxanone; EG, ethyl-

ene glycol; EGDMA, ethylene glycol dimethacrylate; HA, hy- 1. Introduction
aluronic acid; HEMA, hydroxyethyl methacrylate; IPN, inter-
penetrating network; MBAAm, methylene-bis-acrylamide;
P( . . . ), poly( . . . ); PAAc, poly(acrylic acid); PAAm, poly- Since the pioneering work of Wichterle and Lim
acrylamide; PAGE, polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis; PAN, in 1960 on crosslinked HEMA hydrogels [1], and
polyacrylonitrile; PBO, poly(butylene oxide); PCL, polycaprolac- because of their hydrophilic character and potential
tone; PEG, poly(ethylene glycol); PEI, poly(ethylene imine); PEO, to be biocompatible, hydrogels have been of great
poly(ethylene oxide); PEMA, poly(ethyl methacrylate); PF, pro- interest to biomaterial scientists for many years [2
pylene fumarate; PGEMA, poly(glucosylethyl methacrylate);
PHB, poly(hydroxy butyrate); PHEMA, poly(hydroxyethyl meth- 9]. The important and influential work of Lim and
acrylate); PHPMA, poly(hydroxypropyl methacrylamide); PLA, Sun in 1980 [10] demonstrated the successful appli-
poly(lactic acid); PLGA, poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid); PMMA, cation of calcium alginate microcapsules for cell
poly(methyl methacrylate); PNIPAAm, poly(N-isopropyl acrylam- encapsulation. Later in the 1980s, Yannas and co-
ide); PNVP, poly(N-vinyl pyrrolidone); PPO, poly(propylene workers [11] incorporated natural polymers such as
oxide); PVA, poly(vinyl alcohol); PVAc, poly(vinyl acetate);
PVamine, poly(vinyl amine) collagen and shark cartilage into hydrogels for use as
*Tel.: 1 1-206-543-9423; fax: 1 1-206-543-6124. artificial burn dressings. Hydrogels based on both
E-mail address: (A.S. Hoffman). natural and synthetic polymers have continued to be

0169-409X / 02 / $ see front matter 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S0169-409X( 01 )00239-3
4 A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12

of interest for encapsulation of cells [1215] and tions of acronyms). Chemical hydrogels may also be
most recently such hydrogels have become especially generated by crosslinking of water-soluble polymers,
attractive to the new field of tissue engineering as or by conversion of hydrophobic polymers to hydro-
matrices for repairing and regenerating a wide philic polymers plus crosslinking to form a network.
variety of tissues and organs [1641]. Sometimes in the latter case crosslinking is not
Hydrogels are hydrophilic polymer networks necessary. For example, in the hydrolysis of PAN to
which may absorb from 1020% (an arbitrary lower form amide and acid groups from the nitrile groups,
limit) up to thousands of times their dry weight in if the nitrile groups remain in sufficient concentration
water. Hydrogels may be chemically stable or they and association, they can stabilize the hydrogel by
may degrade and eventually disintegrate and dis- hydrophobic interactions, thus forming a physical
solve. They are called reversible, or physical gels hydrogel. In the crosslinked state, crosslinked hydro-
when the networks are held together by molecular gels reach an equilibrium swelling level in aqueous
entanglements, and / or secondary forces including solutions which depends mainly on the crosslink
ionic, H-bonding or hydrophobic forces [42,43]. density (estimated by the MW between crosslinks,
Physical hydrogels are not homogeneous, since Mc ). Like physical hydrogels, chemical hydrogels
clusters of molecular entanglements, or hydropho- are not homogeneous. They usually contain regions
bically- or ionically-associated domains, can create of low water swelling and high crosslink density,
inhomogeneities. Free chain ends or chain loops also called clusters, that are dispersed within regions of
represent transient network defects in physical gels. high swelling, and low crosslink density. This may
When a polyelectrolyte is combined with a multi- be due to hydrophobic aggregation of crosslinking
valent ion of the opposite charge, it may form a agents, leading to high crosslink density clusters
physical hydrogel known as an ionotropic hydro- [46]. In some cases, depending on the solvent
gel. Calcium alginate is an example of this type of composition, temperature and solids concentration
hydrogel. Further, when polyelectrolytes of opposite during gel formation, phase separation can occur,
charges are mixed, they may gel or precipitate and water-filled voids or macropores can form. In
depending on their concentrations, the ionic strength, chemical gels, free chain ends represent gel network
and pH of the solution. The products of such ion- defects which do not contribute to the elasticity of
crosslinked systems are known as complex coacer- the network. Other network defects are chain loops
vates, polyion complexes, or polyelectrolyte com- and entanglements, which also do not contribute to
plexes. For example, the calcium alginate capsules of the permanent network elasticity.
Lim and Sun [10] were coated with a complex There are many different macromolecular struc-
coacervate of alginatepoly( L-lysine) (PLL) in order tures that are possible for physical and chemical
to stabilize the capsule. Complex coacervates and hydrogels. They include the following: crosslinked
polyion complex hydrogels have become attractive or entangled networks of linear homopolymers,
as tissue engineering matrices. Sometimes, physical linear copolymers, and block or graft copolymers;
gels can form from biospecific recognitions, such as polyionmultivalent ion, polyionpolyion or H-
Conconavalin A with a polymeric sugar [44], or bonded complexes; hydrophilic networks stabilized
avidin with a polymeric biotin [45]. All of these by hydrophobic domains; and IPNs or physical
interactions are reversible, and can be disrupted by blends. Hydrogels may also have many different
changes in physical conditions such as ionic strength, physical forms, including (a) solid molded forms
pH, temperature, application of stress, or addition of (e.g., soft contact lenses), (b) pressed powder ma-
specific solutes that compete with the polymeric trices (e.g., pills or capsules for oral ingestion), (c)
ligand for the affinity site on the protein. microparticles (e.g., as bioadhesive carriers or wound
Hydrogels are called permanent or chemical treatments), (d) coatings (e.g., on implants or cathe-
gels when they are covalently-crosslinked networks. ters; on pills or capsules; or coatings on the inside
The synthetic hydrogels of Wichterle and Lim [1] capillary wall in capillary electrophoresis), (e) mem-
were based on copolymerization of HEMA with the branes or sheets (e.g., as a reservoir in a transdermal
crosslinker EGDMA (see Abbreviations for defini- drug delivery patch; or for 2D electrophoresis gels),
A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12 5

Table 1
Hydrophilic polymers used to synthesize hydrogel matrices a
Natural polymers and their derivatives (6crosslinkers)
Anionic polymers: HA, alginic acid, pectin, carrageenan, chondroitin sulfate, dextran sulfate
Cationic polymers: chitosan, polylysine
Amphipathic polymers: collagen (and gelatin), carboxymethyl chitin, fibrin
Neutral polymers: dextran, agarose, pullulan
Synthetic polymers (6crosslinkers)
Polyesters: PEG-PLA-PEG, PEG-PLGA-PEG, PEG-PCL-PEG, PLA-PEG-PLA, PHB, P(PF-co-EG)6acrylate end groups,
P(PEG / PBO terephthalate)
Other polymers: PEG-bis-(PLA-acrylate), PEG6CDs, PEG-g-P(AAm-co-Vamine), PAAm, P(NIPAAm-co-AAc),
P(NIPAAm-co-EMA), PVAc / PVA, PNVP, P(MMA-co-HEMA), P(AN-co-allyl sulfonate), P(biscarboxy-phenoxy-phosphazene),
Combinations of natural and synthetic polymers
P(PEG-co-peptides), alginate-g-(PEO-PPO-PEO), P(PLGA-co-serine), collagen-acrylate, alginate-acrylate, P(HPMA-g-peptide),
P(HEMA / Matrigel ), HA-g-NIPAAm
See Abbreviations for definitions of terms used.

(f) encapsulated solids (e.g., in osmotic pumps), and they are summarized in Table 2 and shown schemati-
(g) liquids (e.g., that form gels on heating or cally in Figs. 14.
A wide and diverse range of polymer composi-
tions have been used to fabricate hydrogels, and 2. Water in hydrogels
Table 1 summarizes the many varied compositions.
The compositions can be divided into natural poly- The character of the water in a hydrogel can
mer hydrogels, synthetic polymer hydrogels and determine the overall permeation of nutrients into
combinations of the two classes. Many different and cellular products out of the gel. When a dry
routes have been used to synthesize hydrogels, and hydrogel begins to absorb water, the first water

Table 2
Methods for synthesizing physical and chemical hydrogels a
Physical gels
Warm a polymer solution to form a gel (e.g., PEO-PPO-PEO block copolymers in H 2 O)
Cool a polymer solution to form a gel (e.g., agarose or gelatin in H 2 O)
Crosslink a polymer in aqueous solution, using freezethaw cycles to form polymer microcrystals
(e.g., freezethaw PVA in aqueous solution)
Lower pH to form an H-bonded gel between two different polymers in the same aqueous solution (e.g., PEO and PAAc)
Mix solutions of a polyanion and a polycation to form a complex coacervate gel (e.g., sodium alginate plus polylysine)
Gel a polyelectrolyte solution with a multivalent ion of opposite charge (e.g., Na 1 alginate 2 1Ca 21 12Cl 2)
Chemical gels
Crosslink polymers in the solid state or in solution with:
Radiation (e.g., irradiate PEO in H 2 O)
Chemical crosslinkers (e.g., treat collagen with glutaraldehyde or a bis-epoxide)
Multi-functional reactive compounds (e.g., PEG1diisocyanate5PU hydrogel)
Copolymerize a monomer1crosslinker in solution (e.g., HEMA1EGDMA)
Copolymerize a monomer1a multifunctional macromer (e.g., bis-methacrylate terminated PLA-PEO-PLA1photosensitizer
1visible light radiation)
Polymerize a monomer within a different solid polymer to form an IPN gel (e.g., AN1starch)
Chemically convert a hydrophobic polymer to a hydrogel (e.g., partially hydrolyse PVAc to PVA or PAN to PAN / PAAm / PAAc)
See Abbreviations for definitions of terms used.
6 A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12

Fig. 1. Schematic of methods for formation of two types of ionic hydrogels. An example of an ionotropic hydrogel is calcium alginate, and
an example of a polyionic hydrogel is a complex of alginic acid and polylysine.

Fig. 2. Schematic of methods for formation of hydrogels by chemical modification of hydrophobic polymers. Examples of these types of
hydrogels include (a) the partial hydrolysis of the acetate groups to OH groups in conversion of PVAc to PVA, and (b) the partial
hydrolysis of PAN to a polymer containing varying concentrations of acrylonitrile, amide and carboxyl pendant groups. In either case the
resulting gel may be subsequently covalently crosslinked.

molecules entering the matrix will hydrate the most bined and simply called the total bound water.
polar, hydrophilic groups, leading to primary bound After the polar and hydrophobic sites have interacted
water. As the polar groups are hydrated, the net- with and bound water molecules, the network will
work swells, and exposes hydrophobic groups, which imbibe additional water, due to the osmotic driving
also interact with water molecules, leading to hydro- force of the network chains towards infinite dilution.
phobically-bound water, or secondary bound water. This additional swelling is opposed by the covalent
Primary and secondary bound water are often com- or physical crosslinks, leading to an elastic network
A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12 7

Fig. 3. Schematic of methods for formation of crosslinked hydrogels by free radical reactions, including a variety of polymerizations and
crosslinking of water-soluble polymers. Examples include crosslinked PHEMA and PEG hydrogels.

Fig. 4. Schematic of methods for formation of crosslinked hydrogels by condensation reactions of multifunctional reactants. Examples of
the reactant groups include reactions of (a) isocyanates and amines or alcohols to form urea or urethane bonds, (b) amines or thiols and vinyl
groups to form amines or sulfides by Michael additions, (c) amines and active esters such as N-hydroxy succinimide to form amides, (d)
acids or acid chlorides and alcohols to form esters, (e) aldehydes and amines to form Schiff bases, etc. Typical examples of natural and
synthetic polymers that are used to form hydrogels by such condensation reactions include many different types of polysaccharides,
collagen, PAAc, PVA and PEG.

retraction force. Thus, the hydrogel will reach an or voids. As the network swells, if the network
equilibrium swelling level. The additional swelling chains or crosslinks are degradable, the gel will
water that is imbibed after the ionic, polar and begin to disintegrate and dissolve, at a rate depend-
hydrophobic groups become saturated with bound ing on its composition. It should be noted that a gel
water is called free water or bulk water, and is used as a tissue engineering matrix may never be
assumed to fill the space between the network dried, but the total water in the gel is still comprised
chains, and / or the center of larger pores, macropores of bound and free water.
8 A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12

There are a number of methods used by research- smaller pores within the network. The average pore
ers to estimate the relative amounts of free and size, the pore size distribution, and the pore inter-
bound water, as fractions of the total water content. connections are important factors of a hydrogel
All of them are controversial, since there is proton matrix that are often difficult to quantitate, and are
NMR evidence that the interchange of water mole- usually included together in the parameter called
cules between the so-called bound and free states is tortuosity. The effective diffusion path length ac-
extremely rapid, perhaps as fast as one H 2 O mole- ross a HG film barrier is estimated by the film
cule every 10 29 s. The three major methods used to thickness times the ratio of the pore volume fraction
characterize water in hydrogels are based on the use divided by the tortuosity. These factors, in turn, are
of small molecular probes, DSC and NMR. When most influenced by the composition and crosslink
probe molecules are used, the labeled probe solution density of the hydrogel polymer network.
is equilibrated with the hydrogel, and the concen- Labeled molecular probes of a range of molecular
tration of the probe molecule in the gel at equilib- weights (MWs) or molecular sizes are used to probe
rium is measured. Assuming that only the free water pore sizes in hydrogels [47]. Fluorescein-labeled
in the gel can dissolve the probe solute, one can dextrans are usually used. The same assumptions and
calculate the free water content from the amount of restrictions apply to these probes as those for small
the imbibed probe molecule and the known (mea- molecular probes used to characterize free and bound
sured) probe molecule concentration in the external water in a hydrogel.
solution. Then the bound water is obtained by Probe solute permeation is a useful method for
difference of the measured total water content of the characterizing pores and their interconnections in
hydrogel and the calculated free water content. hydrogels. The probe solute size and shape, its
Additional assumptions for use of this technique are relative hydrophilic and hydrophobic character, and
that: (a) the solute does not affect the free and bound the availability of free water molecules to hydrate
water distribution in the gel, (b) all of the free water and dissolve the solute molecules are important
in the gel is accessible to the solute, (c) the solute factors governing solute permeation through any
concentration in the hydrogels free water is equal to particular hydrogel. The permeation coefficient, P, is
the solute concentration in the external solution, and the product of the partition coefficient, K, and the
(d) the solute does not interact with the gel matrix apparent diffusion coefficient, Dapp.
chains. The partition coefficient, K, and uniformity of a
The use of DSC is based on the assumption that protein / peptide drug loaded within a hydrogel will
only the free water may be frozen, so it is assumed depend on the protein / peptide size, shape and net
that the endotherm measured when warming the charge; the ionic, polar, apolar groups of the poly-
frozen gel represents the melting of the free water, mer, total available free water within the hydrogel;
and that value will yield the amount of free water in the addition of partition enhancers to the solution;
the HG sample being tested. Then the bound water is temperature, pH and ionic strength, and the drying
obtained by difference of the measured total water method, if the hydrogel has been dried, since that
content of the HG test specimen, and the calculated often leaves a higher concentration of the drug at the
free water content, similar to the above. outer regions of the hydrogel. If a protein drug is
being loaded into a hydrogel, and if the protein has a
net charge opposite to that of the hydrogel, then it
3. Pores and permeation in hydrogels may plug the pores at the surface during loading into
the gel. On the other hand, if it has a net charge that
The amount of water in a hydrogel, i.e. the volume is the same as that of the gel, then it may be
fraction of water, and its free vs. bound water excluded from the gel by Donnan exclusion. When
character will determine the absorption (or parti- loading a protein into a gel, the ionic strength, pH
tioning) and diffusion of solutes through the hydro- and buffer used in the protein solution may in-
gel. Pores may be formed in hydrogels by phase dividually or together control the amount and dis-
separation during synthesis, or they may exist as tribution of the protein loaded into the gel.
A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12 9

The effective or apparent diffusion coefficient crosslink density with the particular size and com-
of the probe molecule, Dapp , is equal to D0 times the position of the drug molecule to be delivered.
ratio of the pore volume fraction divided by the
tortuosity, where D0 is the diffusion coefficient in
free water and the ratio of the pore volume fraction 4. Hydrogels as tissue engineering matrices
divided by the tortuosity is always , 1. Diffusion in
alginate hydrogels has been studied recently [48]. When parts or the whole of certain tissues or
There will always be a portion of the imbibed water organs fail, there are several options for treatment,
in a hydrogel that is not available for drug permea- including repair, replacement with a synthetic or
tion due to pore dead ends, small pores that are less natural substitute, or regeneration. Fig. 5 shows how
than the diameter of the drug molecule, H-bonded or tissue or organ injury, disease or failure has evolved
hydrophobically bound water, and drugmatrix to reach the field of tissue engineering. Tissue repair
polymer interactions. or replacement with a synthetic substitute is limited
Release of a macromolecular drug from a hydrogel to those situations where surgical methods and
will be controlled by the pore volume fraction, the implants have achieved success. Although implants
pore sizes and their interconnections, the size of the have been a reasonably successful option, tissue
drug molecule, and the type and strength of interac- engineering holds out great promise for regeneration
tions of the drug with the polymer chains that make of the failed tissue. The first option for diseased or
up the hydrogel network. In turn, the key factors that injured organs is extracorporeal treatment, in which
control the pore volume fraction, the pore sizes and blood is circulated through polymeric membrane
their interconnections are the composition of the exchange devices. These devices are usually passive
network polymer chains and the crosslink density. exchange systems, but more recently experimental
The interactions of the drug molecules with the systems may contain entrapped or encapsulated cells
network chains will be determined by their respec- from other human or animal sources. Those latter
tive compositions. Thus, in designing a hydrogel systems are called bioartificial or biohybrid or-
network for controlled release of a drug, it will be gans. Total replacement of the diseased or malfunc-
necessary to match the polymer composition and tioning organ or tissue with a natural substitute

Fig. 5. Schematic showing the evolution of various therapeutic methods for treating injured or diseased tissues and organs, to tissue
engineering for the repair, regeneration, or replacement of such tissues or organs.
10 A.S. Hoffman / Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews 43 (2002) 3 12

requires transplantation of an acceptable, healthy Table 4

Advantages and disadvantages of hydrogels as tissue engineering
substitute, and there is a limited supply of such
organs and tissues. Thus, tissue engineering holds
out great promise for regeneration of organs. Advantages
Aqueous environment can protect cells and fragile drugs
Hydrogels have become increasingly studied as (peptides, proteins, oligonucleotides, DNA)
matrices for tissue engineering [49]. Hydrogels de- Good transport of nutrient to cells and products from cells
signed for use as tissue engineering scaffolds may May be easily modified with cell adhesion ligands
contain pores large enough to accommodate living Can be injected in vivo as a liquid that gels at body temperature
cells, or they may be designed to dissolve or degrade Usually biocompatible
away, releasing growth factors and creating pores Disadvantages
into which living cells may penetrate and proliferate. Can be hard to handle
Usually mechanically weak
Table 3 lists the important parameters and properties
May be difficult to load drugs and cells and then crosslink
of hydrogels for this application. Table 4 identifies in vitro as a prefabricated matrix
the important advantages and disadvantages of hy- May be difficult to sterilize
drogels as matrices for tissue engineering. One
significant advantage of hydrogels as tissue engineer-
ing matrices vs. more hydrophobic alternatives such mechanical strength, posing significant difficulties in
as PLGA is the ease with which one may covalently handling [50]. Sterilization issues are also very
incorporate cell membrane receptor peptide ligands, challenging. It is clear that there are both significant
in order to stimulate adhesion, spreading and growth advantages and disadvantages to the use of hydrogels
of cells within the hydrogel matrix. However, a in tissue engineering, and the latter will need to be
significant disadvantage of hydrogels is their low overcome before hydrogels will become practical
and useful in this exciting field.
Table 3
Important physico-chemical parameters and properties of hydro-
gels relevant to their use as matrices for tissue engineering References
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