Faculty Research Spotlight
Tania Betancourt - Chemistry and Biochemistry
Texas State Partners with UT-Austin for Research and Education in Materials Science
“Besides advancing materials science, our project and the overall NSF PREM grant will provide ample opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to engage in materials science research, which involves design and development of functional materials for future technologies.”
In current medical practice, the importance of polymeric materials, which are made from long, repeating chains of molecules, cannot be overstated. Polymeric biomaterials from both natural and synthetic origin are used in cardiovascular, dental, surgical, orthopedic, neurological, and other medical fields. Biomedical devices such as contact lenses, catheters, and wound healing dressings have become common staples in our lives. That said, the versatility of polymeric biomaterials in terms of composition, properties, and function means there are significant opportunities for developing new technologies that can help address currently unmet needs, like the development of drug delivery systems to improve treatment of diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
Research in the area of stimuli-responsive biomaterials has led to the development of a range of intelligent materials. These materials undergo physiochemical changes, such as swelling or changes in permeability, in reaction to changes in the acidity, temperature, or enzymatic activity of the target tissues. Such materials could be used to activate a drug delivery system that provides an effective therapeutic response while minimizing side effects to non-target tissues. For example, these materials could be utilized to limit delivery of a drug to a certain location in the body or to a certain time when it can be most effective. Yet, despite the effectiveness of stimuli-responsive materials developed to date, most still do not offer the means for on-demand activation and deactivation, which would be critical for treatment of many diseases.
Eight of my colleagues and I from the departments of chemistry/biochemistry and physics recently received a six-year, $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop new technologies in the materials science realm. This NSF Partnership for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) grant also focuses on increasing participation of underrepresented minorities in research as a way to diversify the future generation of materials scientists. The project, of which I am Principal Investigator, is titled the PREM Center for Intelligent Materials Assembly and also supports a research and education partnership with the University of Texas at Austin Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (UT MRSEC).
Through this project, my laboratory is developing a biomaterial system to deliver therapeutic agents on demand in collaboration with Drs. Adrianne Rosales and Eric Anslyn from UT MRSEC. We are preparing hydrogels that can reverse permeability when irradiated with near infrared light, a non-damaging light of longer wavelength than the light our eyes are able to perceive, but which can penetrate more deeply into tissues. Hydrogel acts as a reservoir that can be activated to release the therapeutic agent when near infrared light is applied from outside the skin. The light would be absorbed by embedded nanoparticles and converted into heat, which would “open” reversible linkages of the hydrogel polymer network and allow the previously-entrapped drug to be released. When the light is turned off, this process would reverse, thereby trapping the therapeutic agent once more within the “closed” polymer network.
While we are still very early in the development process, these hydrogels could have significant potential in the field of pulsatile drug delivery. Because of their reversibility and simple activation mode, they could be controlled with an external light source (say a near infrared “flash light”) that a doctor or patient could turn on and off as needed, or which could be automatically activated by a smart watch or other similar device. In addition to drug delivery, these materials could be applied as activators in microfluidic systems, injectable biomaterials, 3D printing inks, self-healing materials, and dynamic scaffolds for tissue culture.
Besides advancing materials science, our project and the overall NSF PREM grant will provide ample opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to engage in materials science research, which involves design and development of functional materials for future technologies. The PREM grant will result in development of materials for biomedicine, water purification, chemical fuel generation from renewable sources, and nanoelectronics. These advances are possible only because of the strong, collaborative partnership between Texas State PREM faculty and UT MRSEC. This partnership also provides opportunities for students to learn how research is conducted at other universities and for joint professional development with UT students.