Dr. Matthew Libera, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, was recently awarded an Army Research Office award in the amount of $448,642. His project titled “Complexation Phenomena in Polyelectrolyte Microgels” will study combinations of individual atom groups, ions, and molecules to create one large ion or molecule between model polyelectrolyte (PE) microgels—a type of biomedical material previously developed by Libera’s team—and model counter macro-ions, in an attempt to establish design rules that can guide the development of new microgel-based materials systems with responsive and functional properties. Most central to this effort is understanding how to control the strength of these microgel/micro-ion combinations.
Joint replacements are among the most common elective surgeries—but around one in 100 patients suffer post-surgical infections, turning a routine procedure into an expensive and dangerous ordeal. Libera’s team has developed a self-defensive surface for these implants that release targeted micro-doses of antibiotics when bacteria approach, potentially sharply reducing infection rates. Libera’s method coats implant surfaces with a lattice of microgels: flecks, each 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, capable of absorbing certain antibiotics. The microgels' behavior is regulated by electrical charges, and the electrical activity of an approaching microbe causes them to leak antibiotics, preventing infections from taking root. Microgels could be applied to a wide range of medical devices, including heart valves, tissue scaffolds, and even surgical sutures.
With his current research project, Libera aims to experiment with model PE microgels and model counter macro-ions to compound-form a complex, with the overarching objective of establishing design rules able to guide the development of new microgel-based materials systems with responsive and functional properties.
Libera hopes to exploit this base of new fundamental knowledge to develop responsively functional materials derived from these microgel combinations. He aims to create site-specific microgel multilayers along with controllable size, comprising microgel elements that are differentially responsive both to the loading of very large ions as well as prevailing environmental triggers. He hopes these structures will ultimately bring a range of new behaviors, including differentially responsive macro-ion release and shape changes driven by environmental cues.
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