Researchers at UNSW Sydney have pioneered a groundbreaking material that could revolutionize the cultivation of human tissue in laboratories and enhance its application in medical procedures. This novel material belongs to the family of hydrogels, known for their similarity to the “squishy” substances found in living organisms, such as animal cartilage and plant seaweed. Hydrogels offer immense potential in biomedical research by mimicking human tissue conditions, facilitating cell growth in laboratory settings.

While human-made hydrogels have been employed in various products like food, cosmetics, contact lenses, and absorbent materials, they have also been utilized in medical research to seal wounds and replace damaged tissue. Nonetheless, these synthetic hydrogels often fall short in replicating the complex properties of authentic human tissue.

In a recently published research paper in Nature Communications, UNSW scientists unveiled a lab-made hydrogel that closely mimics natural tissue. This extraordinary material possesses several remarkable qualities with implications for medical, food, and manufacturing technology.

Associate Professor Kris Kilian from UNSW’s School of Materials Science & Engineering and School of Chemistry described the hydrogel material as composed of simple, short peptides, which are the fundamental building blocks of proteins. Importantly, the material is bioactive, allowing encapsulated cells to behave like they are in a natural tissue environment.

Simultaneously, it exhibits antimicrobial properties, safeguarding against bacterial infections, making it highly suitable for medical applications. Moreover, this material is self-healing, capable of reforming after compression, fractures, or expulsion from a syringe, making it ideal for 3D bioprinting or injectable medical material.

The discovery of this hydrogel was made by Ashley Nguyen, a Ph.D. student at the UNSW School of Chemistry. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she employed computer simulations to identify molecules capable of self-assembly. She stumbled upon “tryptophan zippers,” short amino acid chains with multiple tryptophans that act as zippers to promote self-assembly, also known as “Trpzip.”

The potential of Trpzip hydrogel extends to providing an ethical alternative to natural materials, which often require animal harvesting, raising ethical and immune response concerns when used in humans. It stands out as a synthetic material that could replace natural materials in various applications, particularly in clinical research.

To assess Trpzip’s viability in biomedical research, the team partnered with Dr. Shafagh Waters from UNSW Sydney’s School of Biomedical Sciences. Dr. Waters employs Matrigel—a hydrogel extracted from mouse tumors—in her research for cultivating patient tissue. While Matrigel has certain limitations in research use, a chemically defined alternative like Trpzip could prove to be more cost-effective and uniform, benefitting biomedical research significantly.

The UNSW Sydney team now looks to explore pathways to commercialize Trpzip hydrogels and similar materials. They believe that these materials offer a more cost-effective and consistent substitute for animal-derived products, which are widely used in various industries, including medical research. Furthermore, they aim to reduce the number of animals used in scientific research, marking a remarkable outcome in the field.

The next phase of their research will involve collaboration with industry experts and clinical scientists to assess the practicality of Trpzip hydrogels in tissue culture and to explore unique dynamic applications like 3D bioprinting and stem cell delivery.

By Impact Lab