Scientists at UNSW Sydney have developed a groundbreaking hydrogel material that has the potential to completely transform the way human tissue is grown in laboratory settings. Hydrogels are a type of substance that closely resemble the “squishy” materials found in living organisms, such as animal cartilage and seaweed. These materials have been widely used in biomedical research as they can mimic human tissue, creating an environment in which cells can thrive and grow.
While there are synthetic hydrogels available, they often fall short in recreating the complex properties of real human tissue. However, in a recent study published in Nature Communications, scientists from UNSW describe a newly developed lab-made hydrogel that behaves similarly to natural tissue and possesses numerous surprising qualities that have implications for medical, food, and manufacturing technology.
The hydrogel material is composed of simple, short peptides, which are the building blocks of proteins. One of the most notable properties of this material is its antimicrobial nature, meaning that it can effectively prevent bacterial infections. This makes it highly valuable in medical applications. Additionally, the material is self-healing, capable of reforming itself after being damaged or expelled from a syringe. These characteristics make it ideal for 3D bioprinting and as an injectable material for medical procedures.
The discovery of this hydrogel material was made by Ashley Nguyen, a PhD student at UNSW, during the Covid-19 lockdown using computer simulations. While searching for molecules that exhibited self-assembly, Nguyen stumbled upon the concept of “tryptophan zippers,” which are short chains of amino acids containing multiple tryptophan amino acids that promote self-assembly. This concept led to the development of a hydrogel with promising properties.
This new hydrogel material has the potential to serve as an ethical alternative to natural materials currently used. Natural hydrogels are widely used in various industries, including food processing and cosmetics, but their use raises ethical concerns as they are derived from animals. Furthermore, animal-derived materials often evoke negative immune responses when used in humans. The synthetic Trpzip hydrogel material shows potential to replace natural materials in many areas and may even outperform them in certain applications, such as clinical research.
To assess the viability of the Trpzip hydrogel in biomedical research, the team collaborated with Dr. Shafagh Waters, a researcher at UNSW Sydney who uses Matrigel, a hydrogel derived from mouse tumors, for tissue culture in her research. Although Matrigel has some disadvantages as each batch varies, a chemically defined alternative like Trpzip could prove to be cheaper and more consistent, greatly benefiting biomedical research.
The team at UNSW is eager to explore pathways to commercialization for Trpzip hydrogels. With the natural materials industry being a billion-dollar business, the development of a synthetic hydrogel material that is uniform and cost-effective would have significant implications. Not only would it potentially reduce the number of animals used in scientific research, but it could also pave the way for advancements in tissue culture, 3D bioprinting, and stem cell delivery.
Moving forward, the researchers plan to partner with industry and clinical scientists to further investigate the utility of Trpzip hydrogels in tissue culture and explore applications that highlight its unique dynamic characteristics.
Overall, the development of this new hydrogel material represents a significant breakthrough in tissue culture and medical research, offering a promising alternative to natural materials that addresses ethical concerns and potential limitations.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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