Inspired by nature: the next generation of medical textiles

Prof Mohsen Miraftab, University of Bolton
Chemists and materials scientists have long been inspired by Mother Nature. High-performance swimwear based on the texture of sharkskin, and smartphone screens that have learned from the naturally-antireflective coatings in moth eyes are just two high-profile examples. At the University of Bolton, we’re working on a range of bio-inspired materials that may change the way the human body heals itself.

We all know that wound dressings are important - they must be able to absorb any excess liquid from the wound and protect it from infection. But we’re working on a dressing that does more than that, and it takes its inspiration from shellfish.

For hundreds of years, chitosan, a compound found in crabshells, has been said to have healing abilities. And research data backs up that claim, showing it to be antimicrobial. But it is brittle as a fibre, limiting its practical uses as a wound dressing. To solve that issue, we added chitosan to alginate, a highly absorbent gel used in many dressings. We found that the resulting hybrid fibre (which we call alchite) combines all of the advantageous properties of both individual fibres. In addition, alchite reacts with the salt found in sweat to dissolve gradually over time and releases the antimicrobial chitosan – meaning no need to painfully remove the bandage once the wound has healed. We’re now in the process of turning this research in a real-world product.

Looking further ahead, we are also developing artificial tendons to speed up the injury healing process, modelled on real tendons. Tendons connect muscle to bone, and while they are extremely strong, once damaged they can take weeks or months to fully repair, leaving athletes on the sidelines for extended periods. We have developed a process (patent pending) that creates continuous fibres of collagen. This fibre could then be spun like thread and woven into any shape. Because collagen is fully biocompatible – in fact, it’s the same material that bone tissue grows on – we believe that it could act as a ‘scaffold’ for cells to grow on. In this case, it could help to reconstruct or repair tendons. This work is ongoing – the next stage will be to scale it up, and take it beyond the lab environment.

Another bio-inspired textile that our team at Bolton is researching is tiny prosthetic grafts to improve blood flow. Grafting is a process by which damaged tissues can be repaired by implanting a scaffold material, either biodegradable or non-biodegradable. Vascular conditions have long used prosthetic grafts in their treatment, but their narrow diameter, combined with the build-up of cholesterol, often causes them to fail. We’re working on specially designed gelatine-based grafts that may alleviate this problem, by preventing or minimising the collection of cholesterol on the inner surface of these grafts. We’re now looking for a partner to work on in-vivo tests for these grafts, but early stage results look positive.

Bolton is a partner organisation of the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (KCMC), which promotes collaborative R&D and research exploitation. Steve McBride, Technology Transfer Manager at the KCMC said, “The work that Bolton have been doing in the area of bio-inspired materials is nothing short of ground-breaking. They’ve looked at existing problems and found novel, unique solutions, which could make a real difference to how we treat a range of medical conditions.” Through our work with the KCMC we are looking for partners to help ensure this research fulfils its real-world potential.

There is no doubt that textiles address many fundamental issues in medicine. With the addition of micro- and nanomaterials, and cross-disciplinary working, we’ve been able to expand their function ever further. Long may that continue!

Prof Mohsen Miraftab

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