Protein hydrogel hailed as drug delivery breakthrough

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A protein-based hydrogel, developed by researchers in the US, could pave the way for drug delivery systems that are able to survive in the human body for as long as two weeks and provide the sustained release of medication.

protein hydrogel
An illustration of how an engineered Q protein self-assembles to form fiber-based hydrogels at low temperature. These hydrogels have a porous microstructure that allows them to be used for drug delivery applications. Image: NYU Tandon

Hydrogels are three-dimensional polymer networks that reversibly transition from solution to gel in response to physical or chemical stimuli, such as temperature or acidity. These polymer matrices can encapsulate cargo, such as small molecules, or provide structural scaffolding for tissue engineering applications.

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The team behind the latest breakthrough, from NYU Tandon School of Engineering, has succeeded in creating a hydrogel comprised of a single protein domain that exhibits many of the same properties as synthetic hydrogels. Protein hydrogels are more biocompatible than synthetic ones, and do not require potentially toxic chemical crosslinkers. The NYU system is claimed to be the first protein-engineered hydrogel of its kind.

Leader of the research Professor Jin Kim Montclare said: "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…It's an exciting development because protein-based hydrogels are much more desirable for use in biomedicine."

The research team conducted experiments encapsulating a model small molecule within their protein hydrogel, discovering that small molecule binding increased thermostability and mechanical integrity and allowed for release over a timeframe comparable to other sustained-release drug delivery vehicles. Future work will focus on designing protein hydrogels tuned to respond to specific temperatures for various drug delivery applications.

The research is reported in the journal Biomacromolecules