Defining Spatial Relationships between Spinal Cord Axons and Blood Vessels in Hydrogel Scaffolds

Ahad M. Siddiqui, David Oswald, Sophia Papamichalopoulos, Domnhall Kelly, Priska Summer, Michael Polzin, Jeffrey Hakim, Ann M. Schmeichel, Bingkun Chen, Michael J. Yaszemski, Anthony J. Windebank, Nicolas N. Madigan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Positively charged oligo(poly(ethylene glycol) fumarate) (OPF+) hydrogel scaffolds, implanted into a complete transection spinal cord injury (SCI), facilitate a permissive regenerative environment and provide a platform for controlled observation of repair mechanisms. Axonal regeneration after SCI is critically dependent upon nutrients and oxygen from a newly formed blood supply. Our objective was to investigate fundamental characteristics of revascularization in association with the ingrowth of axons into hydrogel scaffolds, thereby defining spatial relationships between axons and the neovasculature. A novel combination of stereologic estimates and precision image analysis techniques quantitate neurovascular regeneration in rats. Multichannel hydrogel scaffolds containing Matrigel-only (MG), Schwann cells (SCs), or SCs with rapamycin-eluting poly(lactic co-glycolic acid) microspheres (RAPA) were implanted for 6 weeks following complete spinal cord transection. Image analysis of 72 scaffold channels identified a total of 2494 myelinated and 4173 unmyelinated axons at 10 μm circumferential intervals centered around 708 individual blood vessel profiles. Blood vessel number, density, volume, diameter, intervessel distances, total vessel surface and cross-sectional areas, and radial diffusion distances were compared. Axon number and density, blood vessel surface area, and vessel cross-sectional areas in the SC group exceeded that in the MG and RAPA groups. Individual axons were concentrated within a concentric radius of 200-250 μm from blood vessel walls, in Gaussian distributions, which identified a peak axonal number (Mean Peak Amplitude) corresponding to defined distances (Mean Peak Distance) from each vessel, the highest concentrations of axons were relatively excluded from a 25-30 μm zone immediately adjacent to the vessel, and from vessel distances >150 μm. Higher axonal densities correlated with smaller vessel cross-sectional areas. A statistical spatial algorithm was used to generate cumulative distribution F- and G-functions of axonal distribution in the reference channel space. Axons located around blood vessels were definitively organized as clusters and were not randomly distributed. A scoring system stratifies 5 direct measurements and 12 derivative parameters influencing regeneration outcomes. By providing methods to quantify the axonal-vessel relationships, these results may refine spinal cord tissue engineering strategies to optimize the regeneration of complete neurovascular bundles in their relevant spatial relationships after SCI. Vascular disruption and impaired neovascularization contribute critically to the poor regenerative capacity of the spinal cord after injury. In this study, hydrogel scaffolds provide a detailed model system to investigate the regeneration of spinal cord axons as they directly associate with individual blood vessels, using novel methods to define their spatial relationships and the physiologic implications of that organization. These results refine future tissue engineering strategies for spinal cord repair to optimize the re-development of complete neurovascular bundles in their relevant spatial architectures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)648-664
Number of pages17
JournalTissue Engineering - Part A
Issue number11-12
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • Schwann cells
  • axonal regeneration
  • hydrogel scaffolds
  • revascularization
  • spinal cord injury
  • stereology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomaterials
  • Biomedical Engineering


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