Microgel Mechanics in Biomaterial Design

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The field of polymeric biomaterials has received much attention in recent years due to its potential for enhancing the biocompatibility of systems and devices applied to drug delivery and tissue engineering. Such applications continually push the definition of biocompatibility from relatively straightforward issues such as cytotoxicity to significantly more complex processes such as reducing foreign body responses or even promoting/recapitulating natural body functions. Hydrogels and their colloidal analogues, microgels, have been and continue to be heavily investigated as viable materials for biological applications because they offer numerous, facile avenues in tailoring chemical and physical properties to approach biologically harmonious integration. Mechanical properties in particular are recently coming into focus as an important manner in which biological responses can be altered. In this Account, we trace how mechanical properties of microgels have moved into the spotlight of research efforts with the realization of their potential impact in biologically integrative systems. We discuss early experiments in our lab and in others focused on synthetic modulation of particle structure at a rudimentary level for fundamental drug delivery studies. These experiments elucidated that microgel mechanics are a consequence of polymer network distribution, which can be controlled by chemical composition or particle architecture. The degree of deformability designed into the microgel allows for a defined response to an imposed external force. We have studied deformation in packed colloidal phases and in translocation events through confined pores; in all circumstances, microgels exhibit impressive deformability in response to their environmental constraints. Microgels further translate their mechanical properties when assembled in films to the properties of the bulk material. In particular, microgel films have been a large focus in our lab as building blocks for self-healing materials. We have shown that their ability to heal after damage arises from polymer mobility during hydration. Furthermore, we have shown film mobility dictates cell adhesion and spreading in a manner that is fundamentally different from previous work on mechanotransduction. In total, we hope that this Account presents a broad introduction to microgel research that intersects polymer chemistry, physics, and regenerative medicine. We expect that research intersection will continue to expand as we fill the knowledge gaps associated with soft materials in biological milieu.


This article was originally published in Accounts of Chemical Research, volume 47, issue 8, in 2014. DOI: 10.1021/ar500131v


American Chemical Society