Shape-shifting gel could change how doctors administer drugs

The hydrogel forms shapes (in this case letters) when immersed in water. Photo: Cornell University.

The hydrogel forms shapes (in this case letters) when immersed in water. Photo: Cornell University

Imagine pouring a liquid gel into a wound that solidifies, stays where you pour it, and slowly dispatches drugs to the area. It wasn’t what researchers at Cornell University were going for, but it’s what they got.

Professor Dan Luo and his team were experimenting with synthetic DNA, working on a material that links to each other DNA molecules and self-assembles into mesh like structures. Then they added enzymes, which led the DNA to self-replicate and create what’s called a hydrogel. But what happened when the hydrogel was exposed to water wasn’t expected. Once water hit the liquid gel, it snapped into a solid, forming the shape of its original container. Essentially, they discovered that the meta-material has a shape memory.

The researchers still haven’t sussed out why this happened, but Luo is already looking ahead to medical applications. The hydrogel can be imbued with drugs, which it releases as it biodegrades in someone’s body. Luo says this could be very useful after, for example, someone has a tumor removed. The gel can be given a “shape memory” the fits into the wound and locks out infection while distributing healing drugs inside.

Watch how the meta-material sags to a liquid, then reforms.


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