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Could Hydrogel Help Mend a Broken Heart?

Two hands making a heart shape with their index and middle fingers
Credit: Congerdesign / Pixabay.
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How do you un-break a heart? Well, if that broken heart belongs to Toni Braxton, you just need to say you’ll love her again. But for anybody else, a different approach is in order.

Chemical engineers are one step closer to being able to repair damaged hearts, with researchers from the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto and Duke University creating a new synthetic material that can replicate the biomechanical properties of human tissues.

The material has been described in a new paper published in the journal PNAS.

Biomimetic hydrogels

Great strides have been made in the field of tissue engineering in recent years. However, current advancement has been somewhat limited by a lack of materials that can properly mimic the native nanofibrillar structures found in biological tissue.

Another unique aspect of these fibrous networks formed by collagen or fibrin inside biological tissues is that they undergo a very strong stiffening response to shear and elongational strain forces, but soften when compressed. This mechanical behavior is rarely found in the synthetic materials developed for tissue engineering.

Now, a team of researchers has designed a new hydrogel that can overcome these hurdles.

Their hydrogel is made from gelatin and wood pulp-derived cellulose nanocrystals. Scanning electron microscope images showed that the material has a fibrous nanostructure with large pores that can deal with nutrient and waste transport, similar to biological tissue.

What is a hydrogel?

A hydrogel is a three-dimensional network of crosslinked, hydrophilic polymers that can swell to hold large volumes of water. They are a popular material choice as a scaffold in tissue engineering, with their high water content providing a good environment for cell survival.

The team also carried out experimental strain stiffening tests, to see if their material also exhibited the unusual stiffening and softening responses that biological fibrous networks do. These tests confirmed that the hydrogel had comparable mechanical properties to biological networks, with it performing very similarly to samples of fibrin gel.

Hydrogels for cancer treatment, heart attack recovery

The researchers have successfully used their tissue-mimetic hydrogels to promote the growth of small-scale tumor replicas known as organoids. These are derived from donated tumor tissue, as described in a previous study.

“Hydrogels that mimic the structure and properties of human tissues can recreate that environment for cells in a controlled setting,” explained first author Prof. Elizabeth Prince, director of the Prince Polymer Materials Lab, speaking to Technology Networks. “Growing tumor organoids in a biomimetic environment allows them to maintain their in vivo phenotype better, making them a better in vitro model of tumors. Also, it has tissue-mimetic hydrogels that can potentially support the healing of damaged tissues.”

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Prince and her team are currently aiming to test the effectiveness of cancer treatments on these organoids, with the idea of one day administering these treatments to patients in personalized cancer therapies. Another aim of her work is to develop injectable versions of this fibrous hydrogel material that can help to regrow heart tissue that has been damaged by a heart attack.

“[These hydrogels] can be used as an in vitro platform for developing personalized cancer therapies and can serve as a scaffold for regeneration of damaged tissues,” Prince said. The tissue-like structure of the hydrogel, with its nanofibers, makes it well-suited to being a scaffold material.

Next, Prince and her team are hoping to exploit the composite nature of these hydrogels by experimenting with different nanoparticles to try to add more functionality to the material. “We are trying to develop conductive versions of these biomimetic hydrogels to support electrical signaling in damaged cardiac and skeletal muscle tissue,” Prince said.


Prof. Elizabeth Prince was speaking to Alexander Beadle, Science Writer for Technology Networks.


About the interviewee:

Prof. Elizabeth Prince is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. Her research interests lie at the interface of soft matter design, polymer chemistry, biomimetic materials and sustainability.


Reference: Prince E, Morozova S, Chen Z, et al. Nanocolloidal hydrogel mimics the structure and nonlinear mechanical properties of biological fibrous networks. PNAS. 2023;120(51):e2220755120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2220755120