Biomimetic hydrogel could help cancer research

A new type of fibrous hydrogel derived from wood could be used to improve cancer treatments and heal damaged heart tissue.

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Developed by researchers at the University of Waterloo, University of Toronto and Duke University, the material is made using cellulose nanocrystals harvested from wood pulp. The material is engineered to replicate the fibrous nanostructures and properties of human tissues, recreating its unique biomechanical properties. This gives it potential across a range of treatments, including cancer. The work was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Cancer is a diverse disease and two patients with the same type of cancer will often respond to the same treatment in very different ways," said Dr Elisabeth Prince, a professor in Waterloo’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

"Tumour organoids are essentially a miniaturised version of an individual patient's tumour that can be used for drug testing, which could allow researchers to develop personalised therapies for a specific patient."

Prince used these human-tissue mimetic hydrogels to promote the growth of small-scale tumour replicas derived from donated tumour tissue. She aims to test the effectiveness of cancer treatments on the mini-tumour organoids before administering the treatment to patients, potentially allowing for personalised cancer therapies.

The research group at Waterloo is developing similar biomimetic hydrogels to be injectable for drug delivery and regenerative medical applications. Prince’s team plans to use injected filamentous hydrogel material to regrow heart tissue damaged after a heart attack. According to the professor, she used nanofibres as a scaffolding for the regrowth and healing of damaged heart tissue, expanding on work she first explored as a student.

"We are building on the work that I started during my PhD to design human-tissue mimetic hydrogels that can be injected into the human body to deliver therapeutics and repair the damage caused to the heart when a patient suffers a heart attack," said Dr Prince.

The next step in the research will be to use conductive nanoparticles to make electrically conductive nanofibrous gels that can be used to heal heart and skeletal muscle tissue.