Injectable hydrogels for sustained delivery of extracellular vesicles in cartilage regeneration

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are a population of small vesicles secreted by essentially all cell types, containing a wide variety of biological macromolecules. Due to their intrinsic capabilities for efficient intercellular communication, they are involved in various aspects of cellular functioning. In the past decade, EVs derived from stem cells attracted interest in the field of regenerative medicine. Owing to their regenerative properties, they have great potential for use in tissue repair, in particular for tissues with limited regenerative capabilities such as cartilage. The maintenance of articular cartilage is dependent on a precarious balance of many different components that can be disrupted by the onset of prevalent rheumatic diseases. However, while cartilage is a tissue with strong mechanical properties that can withstand movement and heavy loads for years, it is virtually incapable of repairing itself after damage has occurred. Stem cell-derived EVs (SC-EVs) transport regenerative components such as proteins and nucleic acids from their parental cells to recipient cells, thereby promoting cartilage healing. Many possible pathways through which SC-EVs execute their regenerative function have been reported, but likely there are still numerous other pathways that are still unknown.

Researchers at Utrecht University discuss various preclinical studies investigating intra-articular injections of free SC-EVs, which, while often promoting chondrogenesis and cartilage repair in vivo, showed a recurring limitation of the need for multiple administrations to achieve sufficient tissue regeneration. Potentially, this drawback can be overcome by making use of an EV delivery platform that is capable of sustainably releasing EVs over time. With their remarkable versatility and favourable chemical, biological and mechanical properties, hydrogels can facilitate this release profile by encapsulating EVs in their porous structure. Ideally, the optimal delivery platform can be formed in-situ, by means of an injectable hydrogel that can be administered directly into the affected joint. Relevant research fulfilling these criteria is discussed in detail, including the steps that still need to be taken before injectable hydrogels for sustained delivery of EVs can be applied in the context of cartilage regeneration in the clinic.

van de Looij SM, de Jong OG, Vermonden T, Lorenowicz MJ. (2023) Injectable hydrogels for sustained delivery of extracellular vesicles in cartilage regeneration. J Control Release 355:685-708. [article]

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