Researchers Develop Spongy Gel Scaffold

Spongy gel scaffold technology developed by Harvard researchers could enable cancer-fighting drugs and stem cells to be injected into patients without the need for surgery, according to a recent paper published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Researchers at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, led by postdoctoral researcher Sidi A. Bencherif, have created these sponges in many shapes—including hearts and stars—to demonstrate that the gels are injectable and possess shape memory.

Bencherif, also a researcher at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, said that when developing a square-shaped gel scaffold with pores large enough to trap and deliver cells, he was surprised to learn that it had a spongy mechanical structure that could be injectable.

“When I took [the gels] out for the first time [...] all the water came out because it act like a sponge, and as soon as you put them back into water, they would be squares,” said Bencherif.

The spongy gel scaffold is important because it provides a matrix in which drugs or stem cells can proliferate and differentiate once injected into tissue.

After reaching out to a colleague familiar with live animal research, Bencherif tested whether the spongy gel could be injected into mice affected with melanoma and breast cancer. The proteins and cells inside the sponge cured both types of cancer in the mice. According to Bencherif, previous scaffold technologies had only ever cured one of the two types.

One of the co-authors of the paper, Catia S. Verbeke, applied this spongy gel technology to test delivery methods of immune-response cells activated to combat cancerous tumors.

The SEAS researcher also noted that the interconnected pore structure of the spongy gel technology more directly targets cancer tumors than traditional treatments.

“To actively bring in cells in this polymer sponge, and in that environment present it with proteins or antigens from the tumor [...] basically is a more directed approach to kind of overcome that additional barrier,” said Verbeke.

Bencherif also expressed excitement about the rate at which this spongy gel technology could begin to be tested in clinical trials.

“We are lucky because this lab is partners with [the] Wyss Institute, and they move very fast from the benchwork to the clinical trials,” he said. “I believe this sponge-based vaccine will be in clinical trials two years from now.”

Bencherif also explained that by perusing comments on his paper posted on online forums, he realized the potential for additional applications of the gel technology to contraceptive drug delivery, tissue regeneration, and immunotherapy.

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