Natural bone is a complex inorganic–organic nanocomposite material, in which hydroxyapatite (HA) nanocrystals and collagen fibrils are well organized into hierarchical architecture over several length scales. In this work, we reported a new hybrid material (CMC-HA) containing HA drown in a carboxymethylcellulose (CMC)-based hydrogel. The strategy for inserting HA nanocrystals within the hydrogel matrix consists of making the freeze-dried hydrogel to swell in a solution containing HA microcrystals. The composite CMC-HA hydrogel has been characterized from a physicochemical and morphological point of view by means of FTIR spectroscopy, rheological measurements, and field emission scanning electron microscopy (FESEM). No release of HA was measured in water or NaCl solution. The distribution of HA crystal on the surface and inside the hydrogel was determined by time of flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) and FESEM. The biological performance of CMC-HA hydrogel were tested by using osteoblast MG63 line and compared with a CMC-based hydrogel without HA. The evaluation of osteoblast markers and gene expression showed that the addition of HA to CMC hydrogel enhanced cell proliferation and metabolic activity and promoted the production of mineralized extracellular matrix. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Biomed Mater Res Part A: 102A: 1568–1579, 2014.