Transparent composite hydrogel in the form of a contact lens made from poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA) and cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) was subjected to in vitro biocompatibility evaluation with human corneal epithelial cells (HCE-2 cells). The cell response to direct contact with the hydrogels was investigated by placing the samples on top of confluent cell layers and evaluating cell viability, morphology, and cell layer integrity subsequent to 24 h culture and removal of the hydrogels. To further characterize the lens–cell interactions, HCE-2 cells were seeded on the hydrogels, with and without simulated tear fluid (STF) pre-conditioning, and cell viability and morphology were evaluated. Furthermore, protein adsorption on the hydrogel surface was investigated by incubating the materials with STF, followed by protein elution and quantification. The hydrogel material was found to have affinity towards protein adsorption, most probably due to the interactions between the positively charged lysozyme and the negatively charged CNCs embedded in the PVA matrix. The direct contact experiment demonstrated that the physical presence of the lenses did not affect corneal epithelial cell monolayers in terms of integrity nor cell metabolic activity. Moreover, it was found that viable corneal cells adhered to the hydrogel, showing the typical morphology of epithelial cells and that such response was not influenced by the STF pre-conditioning of the hydrogel surface. The results of the study confirm that PVA-CNC hydrogel is a promising ophthalmic biomaterial, motivating future in vitro and in vivo biocompatibility studies.
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