Research

Biomimetic Hydrogels

Hydrogels are omnipresent in our lives. They indispensable ingredients food and cosmetics and used in for instance oil drilling and tissue engineering. Hydrogels also play a key role in the mechanical properties of our cells (cytoskeleton) and the extracellular matrix. These gels have intriguing properties: they have a fibrous architecture that allows for relatively stiff materials at very low concentrations as well as a large pore size (which benefits nutrient and protein transport). A unique property associated to the architecture is that the materials become stiffer under stress, up to 100 fold, which is thought to aid in tissue protection and cell-cell communication.

We developed a synthetic gel (PIC) with the properties of a biological gel (Nature 2013). As a synthetic material, we have full control over the structure and the mechanical properties (Nature Commun. 2014 and Adv. Funct. Mater. 2016). In analogy to the cytoskeleton, we can further control the mechanics using multi-component gels (Nature Commun. 2017) or with minute external stimuli (Nature Commun. 2019, Nano Lett. 2021, Adv. Mater. 2022).

The unique feature of the PIC gel is that it combines the advantages of synthetic materials (reproducible, tailorable) with the physical properties of biological materials such as collagen and fibrin. We recently showed that this material mimics key properties of collagen, such as nonlinear mechanics (Adv. Funct. Mater. 2021, Bioactive Mater. 2022) and force transmission on cellular contraction (PNAS 2023). These properties are not found in any other synthetic material. We constantly looking for innovative approaches to further develop our material (Nat. Mater. 2022).

Its strong biomimetic properties makes PIC gels very suited for a wide range of biological applications. We are exploring many of them in parallel, for instance stem cell engineering (Das et al. Nature Mater. 2016, Biomacromolecules 2019, ACS AMI 2020), fibrosis assay development (ACS AMI 2022, Adv. Therap. 2022) and to improve tissue culture techniques (Adv. Healthcare Mater. 2022).

We would like to the develop the PIC gel to become a suitable matrix for more complex cultures, such as organoid. We (Adv. Sci. 2020) and colleagues in Utrecht (Ye et al. Adv. Funct. Mater. 2020) and Groningen (Schaafsma et al Front. Mol. Biosci. 2023) made the first promising steps.

In additiom we are looking of applying PIC gels in the in vivo context, particularly in wound healing (Biomaterials 2018, Biomater. Adv. 2022) and treatment of periodontitis (J. Control. Release 2020, Acta Biomater. 2020).

We are very excited and would like to replace currently used animal-based materials (BM extracts) with well-defined synthetic materials, saving millions of production mice every year. Will you help us?