Cambridge, Massachusetts — Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a new hydrogel last month; a water-based, flexible, smart wound dressing that is capable of holding small electronics to read skin temperature and automatically deliver the drugs required by patients.
“Electronics are usually hard and dry, but the human body is soft and wet. These two systems have drastically different properties. If you want to put electronics in close contact with the human body for applications such as health care monitoring and drug delivery, it is highly desirable to make the electronic devices soft and stretchable to fit the environment of the human body. That’s the motivation for stretchable hydrogel electronics,” said Xuanhe Zhao, associate professor from the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the MIT.
Although several institutes have created their own versions of the hydrogel, the MIT version is particular because of its adhesive properties. According to the developers, it resembles mussels and barnacles adhering to ships and cliffs, but with even more strength.
The hydrogel can stretch along with body movements while not interfering with the functioning of electronic devices monitoring the patient’s medical needs. Researchers also claim that the water-based material could potentially be used in the future to insert these electronics inside the body for diverse health purposes; even the brain, since hydrogel and the organ’s tissues are similar.
According to Zhao, encasing an electronic in hydrogel could be the key to avoid the immune system’s response against such devices. That way, they could be inserted to be used as neural probes or to execute glucose surveillance, depending on the patient’s needs.
The professor also pointed out hydrogel’s importance in the understanding of bio-adhesion, listing the material’s practical applications such as biomedical devices, hydrogel coatings, tissue engineering, underwater glues and water treatment. He explained that the reason for the creation’s adhesive power comes from its content of over 90 percent water, which makes for a water adhesive bonding, stronger than natural glues.
Researchers first tested hydrogel’s properties by experimenting with its capability to conduct electricity. They encapsulated a titanium wire inside the material and then stretched it, but the hydrogel maintained the same conductivity. They also conducted a similar test with LED lights, which kept working even while the material was being stretched around joint areas of the body. Lastly, scientists added the sensors and medication pathways that make for the final smart wound dressing.