Hydrogel is a synthetic material formed from cross-linked chains of polymers. Because these polymers have hydrophilic groups, a hydrogel can absorb over 500 hundred times its own weight in water. A hydrogel closely resembles many different parts of the human body, as it mimics the flexibility and texture of living tissue. This unique structure makes hydrogels ideal for use in the biomedical field for surgical implants, cartilage repair and drug delivery.
Strong Yet Flexible
A hydrogel is formed from cross-linked polymer chains, giving it a solid structure that can be compressed, stretched and knotted without losing the ability to return to its original shape. When it has only a single polymer chain, a hydrogel is weak and brittle, but recent advancements have led to the creation of a hydrogel with a double network of polymers, one rigid and one ductile, to create a hydrogel that is much more resilient to tearing and deformation. This makes the hydrogel ideal for biomedical applications such as replacing load-bearing cartilage and tendons.
Two researchers from the University of Akron, Dr. Jie Zheng, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Dr. Robert Weiss, Hezzleton E. Simmons professor and chair of polymer engineering, are credited with furthering the field of hydrogel research by developing these stronger double-network hydrogels, as well as a new single-step process used for creating them. The new process involves a simple "one-pot" method of synthesis, allowing double-network hydrogels that are suitable for biomedical applications to be produced on a larger scale.
Repairing the Human Body
With double-network hydrogels, it's possible to replace load-bearing cartilage and tendons in the human body, allowing patients with debilitating joint injuries to regain lost mobility. In addition, shape-memory hydrogels that regain their original shape when exposed to stimuli such as light, heat or moisture have applications for minimally invasive surgical replacements, as the hydrogels regain their original shape after being implanted to fill a void or wound in the body.
Computer-simulated hydrogel structures created by bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego, have even demonstrated the ability to self-repair after a cut or other damage. These self-healing hydrogels use dangling polymer "fingers" on the outside of their polymer chains that act as a foundation for a torn chain to repair itself and will do so at different rates in the presence of a low-pH or a high-pH environment. This exciting breakthrough opens doors for hydrogel implants to truly mimic organic tissue once placed inside a patient.
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