Three-dimensional plotted scaffolds with controlled pore size gradients: Effect of scaffold geometry on mechanical performance and cell seeding efficiency

Scaffolds produced by rapid prototyping (RP) techniques have proved their value for tissue engineering applications, due to their ability to produce predetermined forms and structures featuring fully interconnected pore architectures. Nevertheless, low cell seeding efficiency and non-uniform distribution of cells remain major limitations when using such types of scaffold. This can be mainly attributed to the inadequate pore architecture of scaffolds produced by RP and the limited efficiency of cell seeding techniques normally adopted. In this study we aimed at producing scaffolds with pore size gradients to enhance cell seeding efficiency and control the spatial organization of cells within the scaffold. Scaffolds based on blends of starch with poly(ε-caprolactone) featuring both homogeneously spaced pores (based on pore sizes of 0.75 and 0.1 mm) and pore size gradients (based on pore sizes of 0.1–0.75–0.1 and 0.75–0.1–0.75 mm) were designed and produced by three-dimensional plotting. The mechanical performance of the scaffolds was characterized using dynamic mechanical analysis (DMA) and conventional compression testing under wet conditions and subsequently characterized using scanning electron microscopy and micro-computed tomography. Osteoblast-like cells were seeded onto such scaffolds to investigate cell seeding efficiency and the ability to control the zonal distribution of cells upon seeding. Scaffolds featuring continuous pore size gradients were originally produced. These scaffolds were shown to have intermediate mechanical and morphological properties compared with homogenous pore size scaffolds. The pore size gradient scaffolds improved seeding efficiency from ∼35% in homogeneous scaffolds to ∼70% under static culture conditions. Fluorescence images of cross-sections of the scaffolds revealed that scaffolds with pore size gradients induce a more homogeneous distribution of cells within the scaffold.