Thanks to a partnership with Cookeville Regional Medical Center, Tennessee Tech University chemical engineering researchers have a new and improved opportunity for testing hydrogels that promise to improve therapeutic drug delivery and clinical diagnostics.

A core team, consisting of TTU chemical engineering professor Holly Stretz, department chairperson Pedro Arce, and research engineer Jeffrey Thompson, is developing a hydrogel material that can suspend and separate proteins in layers, making analysis under a microscope much easier and more accurate. The cross-linking of solid components and high water content of hydrogels gives them properties similar to natural tissue, making them a good fit for biomaterials applications, clinical diagnostics, and other relevant biohealth applications. The team is enhanced by the close collaboration with the biomolecular medicine laboratory, under the direction of J. Robert Sanders and Hugh Cameron, a biomedical expert who identified the opportunity with CRMC.

The hydrogels being studied at TTU’s chemical engineering department include tiny plate-shaped nanoparticles containing iron; being metallic, they react to magnetic fields and can be used to change the properties of the gel.

Due to a variety of factors, a powerful magnet with a uniform magnetic field had to be identified. TTU’s team had originally been working with the facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. However, in their quest to make the gels for commercialization more feasible, the team realized there was a resource much closer to home – CRMC’s Imaging Center.

“Jeff confirmed that we can, in fact, do this in an MRI,” said Stretz, “so that makes it much more feasible commercially than depending always on a magnet located at a single national lab.

“Also, MRI magnets are almost everywhere these days, and [usually] located near or inside healthcare facilities such as the CRMC, since these instruments are often needed to image tissues inside the human body.”

With the cooperation of CRMC imaging center director Michelle W. Zellner and the help of the hospital’s radiological staff, testing has been underway since early May. In the course of three sessions, the TTU team has seen the desired results.

“It was very, very easy for us to help,” said Zellner. “We set things up for 6:45 p.m., after hours, so it didn’t interfere with patient care, not one iota. The engineers have been absolutely beside themselves that we could help.”

The easy access to CRMC’s imaging facilities has been crucial in laying down groundwork for future progress and possible collaborations in the health-care related field between TTU and CRMC.

“The staff at CRMC has been very helpful making equipment available to keep progress moving forward with the hydrogels,” said Thompson. “We are seeing some very exciting separation results with the nanocomposite hydrogels manufactured at CRMC, which have not previously been seen using commercially available hydrogel recipes.”

Examined under a microscope, an ordinary gel appears like a cross-section of Styrofoam, with very even, symmetrical units bonded together at their walls. Those even dimensions are a problem when it comes to examining the gel when it’s carrying proteins or other small particles. This becomes even more of a critical issue as therapeutic proteins are developed.

The properties of gels can be altered by temperature, light, pressure or other factors, something that is of particular interest for drug delivery, clinical diagnostics or tissue engineering. The manipulation of the structure of hydrogels can affect the way they interact with cells and tissues.

The result of this research could mean hydrogels that are tuned to release protein-based drugs in a very controlled, metered dosage, or they can be used to assist in identifying protein markers associated with particular diseases, thus leading to detection at an early stage.

While there is still work to be done, results so far are promising, and follow-up efforts involve the development of a research proposal that is being submitted to the National Institutes of Health, to support the continued growth in biomedical research and education activities taking place at TTU. If the team’s goals are met, this project could mean big changes in the way drugs are delivered or diseases are detected.