Originally Published MDDI July 2002NEWS & ANALYSIS Gregg Nighswonger

Gregg Nighswonger

July 1, 2002

2 Min Read
Smart Gels Finding New Medical Applications

Originally Published MDDI July 2002


Gregg Nighswonger


Smart gels liquefy at cooler temperatures and solidify when warmed.

Once regarded as a laboratory novelty, smart gels are now poised to become a useful new material for medical device applications. Speaking at the MD&M East conference in New York City in June, the president of Smart Materials Inc. (Norton, MA), Neil Goldman, described the lengthy journey his company's Morph gels have taken from university lab to the medical marketplace.

Beginning with fundamental research in Europe and Israel in the 1940s, researchers, most notably the late Toyoichi Tanaka of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA), explored potential uses of the phase-transition properties of these synthetic polymer gels. Smart Materials built on that research to explore a broader range of applications.

The company has been successful in promoting novel applications in consumer markets, and is now making inroads to the medical sector. The firm has explored use of the gel as artificial actuators and as a component in an artificial pancreas.


(click to enlarge)

Goldman explains that when Tanaka first began working with the gels in the late 1980s, "the gels didn't do what they do now. They really just expanded or contracted to absorb or expel fluids." Smart Materials modified the gels, making them capable of transforming from a liquid to a viscous state in response to temperature changes. "The gels can do just about anything you can imagine," Goldman says. "For example, they can absorb medicines, then release them slowly over a period of time, such as in drug delivery." The firm's Morph gels are currently being used in sleep apnea masks. The gels, which are soft and pliable at room temperature, become firm when warmed to form a secure seal between the mask and the patient's face.

The gel's response to heat is quite precise, says Goldman. "It's very precise—within about one tenth of a degree. So it's quite closely calibrated. And other stimuli can be used—such as electricity or sunlight." The gel's viscosity and reaction time can be controlled as well. "You can make it as thick or as rigid as necessary," he adds.

The company intends to explore additional medical applications, including the custom prosthetic and orthopedic sectors. Goldman believes that gels could prove effective in devices that provide support and pressure relief.

Copyright ©2002 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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