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Protein Gels Being Devised to Simulate Human Functions

Jin Kim Montclare

Jin Kim Montclare (New York University)

12 August 2015. New York University’s engineering school is developing a new type of protein-based gel materials that respond to and replicate natural biochemical processes. The three-year project, led by chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Jin Kim Montclare, is funded by a $368,000 grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Montclare and colleagues, at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering in Brooklyn, New York, are investigating ways of making hydrogels from engineered proteins derived from E. coli bacteria that can then be refined into substances imitating natural processes to help heal wounds, detect changes in vital signs, or deliver drugs. Hydrogels are networks of material that contain primarily water, but maintain enough substance to form into 3-D gelatinous structures. The body naturally forms some materials, such as vitreous humor in the eyes and cartilage, with hydrogels made of proteins.

One function of these new hydrogels would be adhering to skin and other human surfaces to help wounds heal faster. In this case, hydrogels would be shaped into patterns similar to the feet of geckos that enable the reptile to stick to vertical walls and overhangs, yet release when necessary. Other planned uses include sensing and controlling the flow of fluids in the body, and as well as controlling delivery of drugs to specific organs.

Most previous work in developing materials that simulate natural functions worked with synthetic polymers and other substances. Because these new materials are based on proteins, they can respond to the same natural biochemical stimuli as humans, such as pH levels or temperature.

Montclare’s lab is not alone in devising hydrogels based on natural chemistries. Researchers at Kansas State University are studying development of hydrogels with peptides, simple protein compounds, for medical purposes, reported last November in Science & Enterprise. The team at Kansas State also founded a company, PepGel LLC, to commercialize their research for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

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