Syracuse University Magazine

Infection Protection

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Biomedical and chemical engineering professors Patrick T. Mather and Dacheng Ren are ready to battle virulent infections that claim lives and cost billions of dollars. Their weapon: a new hydrogel web composed of nano-sized polymeric fibers and a silver compound that they created through collaborative work at the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI). "We saw a need for better wound dressings and medical devices because of the significant problem of infections in health care and on the battlefield," says Mather, the Milton and Ann Stevenson Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering and director of SBI.

The significance of the antimicrobial web is that it provides protection against infections for up to 14 days, much longer than any current material. When absorbing water, most antimicrobial materials swell and expand. This leads to a quick release of the antimicrobial agent-in this case, a silver ion from silver nitrate, which is commonly used to combat infections. In their experiments, the new material didn't expand during immersion in water; instead, it shrunk slightly-an unprecedented behavior, they say. The key advantage to the new material, Mather notes, is the compact nanofiber structure, which makes it more difficult for the silver ion to escape, slowing the process and creating a regulated release that prolongs the attack against infectious bacteria that colonize as biofilm on moist surfaces. Mather suggests envisioning the fibers-about 100 nanometers in diameter-welded together like a soccer net. "The fibers can expand until they impinge on one another," he says. "It's amazing how much water or other biological fluids the fibers can take up-about five-fold the amount of their own weight-without any dimensional change. That's really critical for wound dressings." 

Ren, an expert on biofilms, believes the hydrogel web can be used to control biofilm growth in existing infections and to prevent new infections. "This technology offers extended protection for critical control of infection," Ren says. "It attacks bacteria, which are much more difficult to kill on the surface. Because the microbes attach to the surface of this material, the advantage is that the delivery is local and the killing of the microbes is local, which means it can pack a lot of potency."

Mather and Ren collaborated with postdoctoral research professor Jian Wu and doctoral candidate Shuyu Hou G'10 in developing the hydrogel web and shared their findings in Biomacromolecules, a publication of the American Chemical Society. They have a patent pending on the technology and are exploring its commercial potential with a company. They believe that as a "platform technology" the web can employ other active antimicrobial components. Mather, who specializes in developing polymers for the biomedical field, uses a technique called electro-spinning to create the nano-sized polymeric fibers. Kate Wolcott '11, a chemical engineering major who assists with research in the SBI lab, helps to produce threads of the nanofibers. "One of my interests is in the development of new materials," she says. "The nanofiber concept is fascinating."

Through ongoing research at SBI, Mather and Ren, who received funding from the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology, and Innovation for the project, plan to continue developing applications of the concept, including exploring such options as implantable medical devices, time-released drugs, and biodegradable materials. "There is lots of room for innovation," Mather says. "We'll see where it takes us." —Jay Cox