Graphene-based materials are useful reinforcing agents to modify the mechanical properties of hydrogels. Here, an approach is presented to covalently incorporate graphene oxide (GO) into hydrogels via radical copolymerization to enhance the dispersion and conjugation of GO sheets within the hydrogels. GO is chemically modified to present surface-grafted methacrylate groups (MeGO). In comparison to GO, higher concentrations of MeGO can be stably dispersed in a pre-gel solution containing methacrylated gelatin (GelMA) without aggregation or significant increase in viscosity. In addition, the resulting MeGO-GelMA hydrogels demonstrate a significant increase in fracture strength with increasing MeGO concentration. Interestingly, the rigidity of the hydrogels is not significantly affected by the covalently incorporated GO. Therefore, this approach can be used to enhance the structural integrity and resistance to fracture of the hydrogels without inadvertently affecting their rigidity, which is known to affect the behavior of encapsulated cells. The biocompatibility of MeGO-GelMA hydrogels is confirmed by measuring the viability and proliferation of the encapsulated fibroblasts. Overall, this study highlights the advantage of covalently incorporating GO into a hydrogel system, and improves the quality of cell-laden hydrogels.
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