Hydrogels are polymeric materials that are hydrophilic in nature and are able to absorb and hold a large amount of water, causing it to expand while still maintaining its structure.  They can change in phase from solution to gel and vice versa as it is triggered by physical or chemical external drive like change in pH or temperature.

A team from NYU Tandon School of Engineering has recently created a hydrogel consisting of a protein domain that has the same properties as synthetic hydrogels.  As the researchers explain in a publication in ACS Biomacromolecules, since this new protein-based hydrogel is biocompatible, the researchers are eyeing for it to be used in various medical applications, one of them being in drug delivery systems.

The researchers first prepared a solution of trace metals to support cultures that improved cell growth and protein expression and then the solution was filtered.  After this, parameters like the individual fiber diameters were optimized to allow efficient aggregation and gelation.

To support their research, the team conducted experiments where they encapsulated a model of a small molecule in the protein hydrogel, which turned out to improve the thermostability and mechanical stability of the molecule.  Below is a series of pictures that show how long it took for the hydrogel to erode.

The hydrogel-molecule complex was also able to survive over a longer period of time compared to existing systems.  The researchers claim that if it were to be used in drug delivery and release systems, it would be able to last for as long as two weeks in the body and provide sustained release of medication.

Lead researcher and NYU Tandon professor, Jim Kim Montclare, says their protein-based hydrogel is the first of its kind.  "This is the first thermo-responsive protein hydrogel based on a single coiled-coil protein that transitions from solution to gel at low temperatures through a process of self-assembly, without the need for external agents," she said.  "It's an exciting development because protein-based hydrogels are much more desirable for use in biomedicine."

In the future, the researchers hope to further improve the system's response to various temperatures for corresponding medical applications.