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Research team unveils advance in medical biotechnology

Hydrogels are a class of polymer materials which will play a major role in human tissue engineering. Now researchers at the University of Wollongong have developed tough hydrogels which can recover from large strains and absorb impacts without permanent damage.

The findings have just been published (3 September 2012) in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Soft Matter (See http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2012/sm/c2sm26745d).

The research team comprised Associate Professor Marc in het Panhuis from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science and students from the Soft Materials Group in the School of Chemistry – Shannon Bakarich, Geoffrey Pidcock, Paul Balding and Leo Stevens. Professor Paul Calvert from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was also part of the team and is currently a Visiting Professor at UOW.

Hydrogels are a class of highly hydrated polymer materials --just think of shower gel, toothpaste and contact lenses. They are a complex network of large molecules –polymers--that are insoluble but can contain up to 99 per cent water. Hydrogels are often likened to ‘tissue mimics’ as their elastic moduli is similar to that of many soft tissues. However, when highly swollen most of these hydrogel materials lack the toughness and extensibility to withstand the forces to which common tissues are subjected.

The ability to design and create and apply novel hydrogel structures for emerging applications such as tissue engineering depends on our understanding of the molecular structure of the materials and its impact on the mechanical properties.

Professor in het Panhuis said his team’s paper in Soft Matter showed they had produced hydrogels from polymers forming ionically and covalently crosslinked networks, which can recover due to the reversible characteristics of the ionic links in the gel material.

Several other research teams around the world are also actively developing these new types of materials including the Universities of Harvard and Duke and Seoul National University in Korea, (See http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/full/nature11409.html, published online 5 September 2012).

According to Professor Calvert these new materials would make new devices possible: “This new family of gels should enable new applications in soft tissue prosthetics, soft robots and new types of soft devices that were never feasible before.”

“Our results contribute to the development of hydrogels which can recover from large strains and absorb impacts without permanent damage. It is highly significant for any load bearing materials such as tissue replacements in our bodies,” Professor in het Panhuis said.

Professor in het Panhuis said the findings overall would be of special benefit in future applications in medical biotechnology in areas such as wound covering or in human tissue engineering.

The research was supported by funding from the University of Wollongong and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence and Future Fellowships Programs.

For further information contact Associate Professor Marc in het Panhuis on 0421 149 818.

Last reviewed: 6 September, 2012

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