These sponge-like gels can help grow new tissue, train immune cells, and deliver medication | 8/25/2015 | Staff
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In 2010, Sidi Bencherif was working in a lab at Harvard University, trying to use a surgically implantable structure to train immune cells to target cancer.

"I didn't think surgery was needed," says Bencherif, who is now an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern. "I wanted to find a way to make something similar that was also injectable."

Years - Bencherif - Colleagues - Breakthrough - Technology

Two years later, Bencherif and his colleagues announced a breakthrough technology: the first sponge-like gel that can be compressed and injected under the skin with a hypodermic needle. Once injected, these materials, known as cryogels, swell back to their original size and dimensions, allowing them to hold cells or treatments.

Bencherif recently published a review of the broad spectrum of ways researchers have been able to use these cryogels. Nearly 40 scientific articles have been published on the subject, from researchers around the world.

Interest - Field - Bencherif - Class - Biomaterials

"There has been massive interest in the field," Bencherif says. "It created a new class of biomaterials."

Cryogels are made by binding polymers together at freezing temperatures, so that they form structures laced with ice crystals. When the polymers are thawed, the ice melts, leaving a network of pores through the cryogel.

Cryogel - Pores - Gel - Percent - Size

When the cryogel is squeezed through a needle, these pores collapse; the gel can compress down to 90 percent of its original size. Once it is out of the needle, it draws in surrounding fluid to expand back to its original volume, like a sponge absorbing water.

Researchers have been experimenting with different materials and applications, Bencherif says. In Bencherif's lab, postdoctoral researcher Loek Eggermont is using cryogels as environments to activate or inhibit immune cells, which could help cells target diseases like blood cancer or keep them from attacking healthy cells in individuals with autoimmune diseases.

Tools - Environment - Cells

"They're great tools to provide this environment for cells to...
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