About the author
Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials Group
Ever wondered how nappies are able to absorb large quantities of fluids?
The answer is simple: hydrogels. Hydrogels are polymer networks that are able to retain up to 1 000 times their dry mass in water. When in contact with liquids, the material starts swelling like a large sponge, resulting in dry nights for babies and toddlers. In the youtube movie below, you can see some hydrogel beads in action.
But looking at the title, how can we possibly move from nappies to artificial organs?
As you may know, our bodies are not built by merely stacking cells on top of each other. Instead, all our cells are embedded in a layer of proteins and polysaccharides. This extracellular matrix is in fact a hydrogel on its own, providing the cells with the necessary structural support.
When organs are severely injured or start failing due to disease, transplantation may be the only chance of survival for patients suffering from such conditions. Luckily, researchers around the world, including our own research group (Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials Research Group) are finding new ways to regenerate tissues and organs.
By seeding the patient’s cells onto polymer constructs, researchers hope to develop artificial tissues and organs that are not rejected by the patient’s immune system. In our lab, we develop novel hydrogel materials that can mimic the natural, aqueous surroundings of cells. As you might expect, the better the cells feel at home in our hydrogels, the better their performance will be in future implants.
There is still a long way to go towards growing a human organ in a hydrogel- containing ‘test tube’, but our quest continues. Very interestingly, biomedical hydrogels are already reaching the markets. As an example, hydrogel-based bandages keep burn wounds humid and speed up the healing process.
As you now know, polymer chemistry is a lot more than designing plastic food packaging or developing the insulation material of your future place to live. Indeed, the same type of materials that keep babies dry may someday save your life.
Enjoy polymer chemistry!