Healthcare materials wise up

"This was a beautiful proof of principle – that you can make a synthetic system that is sensing and self-regulating, and actually mimics the body’s ability to maintain temperature,” says Pitt researcher Anna Balazs.

Research at University of Pittsburgh and Harvard points to a future of "smart" materials at the point of care

PITTSBURGH  -  Seems like everything is "smart" nowadays. Smartphones. Smart TVs. Smart cars. For something to simply exist and perform its intended purpose is no longer enough; now everything must be technologically-advanced enough to all but think for itself.

Smart materials  -  which are capable of reacting and changing in response to stimuli such as temperature, or changes in pH or moisture levels  -  are getting more advanced by the day and could be poised for a bigger role in healthcare as the 21st century rolls along. 

There are pH-sensitive polymers, which change in size and volume when the pH of the surrounding medium changes. Photomechanical matter can shape-shift when exposed to light. There are even "self-healing" materials that can actually repair damage due to normal wear and usage.

Some new engineering experiments this summer at the University of Pittsburgh show promise for a type homeostatic material that can mimic the temperature responsiveness of the human body. Soon, researchers say, the smart material could be put to work toward smarter, more energy-efficient buildings  -  hospitals, say  -  and also in portable medical devices.

First published in the July 12 issue of Nature, the research, from a team of engineers from both Pitt and from Harvard, shows advancement in the field of self-regulating microscopic materials. 

Olga Kuksenok, a research professor in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, spearheaded the effort. She cautions that "it's not a technology yet," but more of "an idea."

But while "it's experimental," she said, the joint Pitt/Harvard research "did show that the system worked."

It works, essentially, by placing tiny, hair-like "posts" in a hydrogel solution. According to Pitt researchers, when the tips of these posts stand upright and interact with reagents in the upper fluid layer, they generate heat  -  which then causes the temperature-sensitive gel to shrink in size. When that happens, the posts then bend away from those reagents, and the system's temperature cools off. Consequently, the gel expands  -  resulting in the posts returning to an upright configuration.

"The reconfiguration of the gel creates an on/off switch of sorts for the system," which then "oscillates back and forth between these two states and, in this manner, regulates the overall temperature," said Kuksenok in a statement.