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'Smart gels' to revolutionise drug delivery

18 May 2020

Scientists from the University of Bradford, working with colleagues from the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS) have developed a new method of delivering drugs into the body using ‘smart gels’ that can be injected where they are needed and release their drugs over time. The development, which they hope is close to being brought to market, could reduce stress and time pressures on patients and save the NHS thousands of pounds per treatment.

Many medical conditions can’t be tackled with a single round of treatment – in fact many conditions, such as cancer, or those requiring long-term pain management, can require that a patient be injected with drugs over the course of many weeks or months. Visiting a doctor for multiple injections can be time-consuming and stressful for the patient and the drugs that are injected circulate through, and affect, the whole body instead of the place where they are most needed – which decreases the drug’s effectiveness and increases the risk of side-effects.

The breakthrough from the University of Bradford team, which is published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, would see ‘smart gels’ injected into the body directly where they are needed.

Smart hydrogels are made up of a matrix of fluids and polymers – many of which can be found in everyday cosmetic items like creams and gels but, unlike the ‘passive’ ingredients found in your favourite moisturiser, smart gels have the ability to react to different stimuli, such as heat and pressure, and change their properties in response.

This means that a smart gel can be injected into the area requiring treatment as a liquid but, once it is inside the body, the change in temperature and pressure will trigger the liquid to transform into a soft gel. This gel remains in situ and acts as a ‘drug depot’ that can release its payload of drugs over a predetermined period of time ranging from hours to weeks – greatly reducing the number of hospital visits a patient has to undertake and, potentially, the side-effects they have to endure.

The amount of drug the gels deliver and the period over which they do so can be fine-tuned and specifically tailored to the patient’s needs and, once they have delivered their drug supply, the hydrogels are safely metabolised by the patient’s body. The team expect it would benefit patients recovering from surgery and those with long-term chronic illness.

As part of a suite of investigations, the team used rheology (which looks at how liquids and solids deform and flow) and small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) simultaneously, to probe the mechanical behaviour of smart hydrogels and their structure at a molecular level. For this, they used the LOQ and Sans2d beamlines at ISIS, as part of a suite of investigations that also included using small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) techniques at Diamond Light Source, which allowed them to investigate the gels with a variety of different concentrations of ingredients.

Although a kilogram of smart hydrogel currently cost around £100, a typical patient would only require about ten grams and, while the cost of the drug would have to be added, the team expect there to be significant monetary savings because the patient would require fewer hospital visits.

The collaborative work used state-of-the-art characterisation methods to study the internal structure of the gel network at the University of Bradford and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

The team hope to begin human trials later this year.

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Last updated: 18 May 2020


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