Czech scientists develop unique hydrogel that promises faster healing of fractures

Illustrative photo: Jacque Stengel / freeimages

Prof. Josef Jančář and his team at CEITEC (Central European Institute of Technology) in Brno have developed a unique degradable hydrogel that should in due time make it easier to heal very serious burns and can be used to fill bone material in complicated fractures. It may even help with the gradual release of drugs or chemotherapeutics and thus influence the treatment of cancerous growth. After 10 years of development, the research centre has succeeded in obtaining a European patent, which guarantees the right to future production of this product for medical use.

Josef Jančář,  photo: Vladan Dokoupil
I spoke to Prof. Jančář about the possibilities opening up and began by asking him to explain what hydrogel is.

“Hydrogel is a combination of a solid and a liquid – you are surely familiar with it from various products like contact lenses or diapers and other hygienic products. Principally it consists of a network of molecules connected by weak bonds and a liquid which in hydrogels is water. Many human tissues are actually hydrogel –such as the liver, a portion of the skin…the human body itself is about 55 percent water and the water is weakly bound by various biomolecules.

"Researchers worldwide are trying to develop either synthetic or a combination of natural and synthetic polymer network which will resemble these tissues and use these networks, along with water to replace either missing tissues, cover wounds or burns and in some instances it is used to cultivate cells or tissues outside the body to be used for drug testing, serum production or other research.

"Our material consists of a combination of biological natural polymers and synthetic ones which has the ability, depending on its composition, to control its solubility in water which will then be decisive for the speed with which the material is dissolved in the body.”

So can you explain how that will help patients?

“It is still very far from going to patients –because as you know the process from laboratory to patient takes about 10 years under good conditions. First you have so called in vitro tests, where you use just cells cultivated outside the body, then you have to go through animal testing to prove the efficacy of the process and after you have all the data showing there are no side effects on the health of the animals tested you can ask for human clinical testing.”

And you are now conducting tests on animals?

“Yes, we are at the stage of testing the hydrogel on animals. We started with rabbits and mice and now we are using miniature pigs, which are genetically closest to human beings. So we are in the final stage there. Once we have the results of tests on miniature pigs we will be able to request approval for testing on human beings.”

And how are you hoping that it may help humans?

“Well, the first area is wound coverage. There are a large number of different wounds, either from surgical procedures, diabetic ulcers, wounds from traumas and all of them require a moist environment for healing and access of oxygen to the cells which are working to repair the tissue. Hydrogels have the ability to do that, they cover the wound, we can add additives which are bactericides, so they will prevent infection while helping the bioactive substances to accelerate healing and probably also reduce the amount of scarring. We have also had results over the last ten years – when we used these hydrogels with strengthening additives – to help healing in cases of large defects in bones. These tests were also conducted on miniature pigs and now there is a group at the faculty hospital in Brno which is applying for tests on humans.”

If I simplify it – does that mean that in future it could help mend broken bones faster?

Hydrogel,  illustrative photo: Petra Klawikowski,  Wikimedia Commons
“That’s one possibility. There are such products already on the market, but none of them is useful for all types of procedures. Our material will be very good in augmenting missing bones, for instance if you are doing cosmetic surgery and you need to add some bone tissue to already existing bones then you can use this material as a scaffold for the patient’s cells to in-grow into this portion and to augment the missing bone. There can be resections after cancer treatment and so forth.”

And apparently this hydrogel could be tailored to the needs of individual patients and is degradable, so it would disappear after a time, is that right?

“That’s correct. The hydrogel itself can be considered as a base material to which additives can be added for a specific application. That’s one possibility. It can also serve as a carrier for cells which are taken from the patient and cultivated on this material outside the body and then implanted. Because one problem that often occurs in this procedure is that the body does not accept synthetic materials or cells taken from animals.”

I understand that it can even assist the gradual release of drugs in the body and you are hoping that in this way it could help in the treatment of cancer, is that so?

“I would be very cautious in this respect. We do not want to give the impression that the material is good for everything. It is a fundamental material which we can work with and the European patent which we just received is on an additive that is based on a specific polymer which is able to form nano-containers and these containers can be used as vehicles to deliver drugs. There is a world-wide effort in doing so-called targeted drug delivery – for which you need specific surface groups which will attach to specific cells – but that is very far from being applicable on humans. So I would be very careful in this respect. I do not want to create the impression that we are already there.”

Having said all that, it does seem that this hydrogel has a very broad use. Did you aim for that or did that come as a surprise?

“We developed the material directly for this particular use. What me have learnt – my colleague prof. Vojtová and others in the team –is that by additives we can expand on the possibilities afforded, such as that the material can be stabilized by UV light for example which will give it a specific field of application. In general, hydrogels are used in a broad range of products –from hygienic products to disinfection materials – so principally we can add multiple additives which can have multiple effects from a bactericidal effect to accelerating cell proliferation or changing colour, if you wish.”

Are you cooperating with scientists abroad or is this strictly your project?

“Yes, we have broad collaboration with universities in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. International collaboration is something we firmly believe in at CEITEC.”

And how much interest is there in the hydrogel abroad?

Illustrative photo: Jacque Stengel / freeimages
“There is interest everywhere. The problem is that in order to put this research to real use there has to be someone with sufficient capital to bring it from the laboratory to real life, and there are only a few large pharmaceutical companies which are able to do that.”

Assuming that the tests go well – on animals and patients – and you do find a producer how long may it take for this product to start helping people?

“It would be a great satisfaction for us to see it helping people. It all depends on the effort made by the potential manufacturer, their ability to bring it through the clinical testing and the various approval processes. Realistically, if everything goes well, then eight to ten years is the approximate time frame we are looking at.”