Polymers do not have to be made from covalent bonds. Non-covalent and supramolecular interactions can be leveraged to create dynamic, self-healing, stimuli-responsive, and spatio-temporal polymers as the backbone of functional materials. The materials in the body are normally complex structures that can adapt to, respond to, and influence the cells in the environment. The body employs numerous networks of supramolecular interactions in order to achieve these extraordinary functions. Here at MERLN, we try to use bottom-up supramolecular materials in order to create more controllable and life-like polymers for biomedical applications. Think about materials that heal themselves, have extreme toughness, and mimic the natural environment of a cell.
The extracellular matrix (ECM) of a cell is a complex network of materials which both provide a structure for cells, and a medium for them to communicate through. At MERLN, we both try to build synthetic (and simpler) versions of these materials, bioactive hydrogels, and try to extract ECM from once living tissues, via decellularization. Via these two strategies, we can start to control the environment in which a cell is grown, the timing of bioactive cues, and understand what features of the ECM are important for desired cellular function. This is a highly complex research line, however, making simple and rationally designed materials brings us much closer to understanding how the ECM facilitates tissue regeneration. Naturally, we are on a mission to create well-defined materials which can replace the oft ill-defined and clinically untranslatable mixtures holding back regenerative therapies.