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By building up coatings one molecular layer at a time, MIT researchers have made a new class of materials that can release drugs, and even genes, in an exact sequence and at a predetermined rate. The method could be widely applicable for designing novel multilayered materials to improve the safety of medical implants and to serve as elaborate scaffolding in the tissue engineering of cells to make bones, blood vessels, muscles, and livers in the lab.

The multilayered materials initially could be used to coat medical implants, such as hip replacements, cutting down on infections and promoting healing. Animal trials could start as early as next year for that purpose.

“The technology itself is much bigger than the applications we’re talking about starting with,” says Paula Hammond, professor of chemical engineering at MIT, who directed the research to develop the materials. “The idea that we can deliver drugs and genes from a surface in a controlled sequence is something that can ultimately have an impact in cancer, and it can have an impact in tissue engineering, which is another area we’re beginning to look at.”

To make the coatings – reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science – researchers began with a well-known process, called layer-by-layer electrostatic assembly, that gives molecular control over the components of the coating. Such coatings, which alternate between positively and negatively charged particles and polymers, break down in the body, releasing their contents in a controlled manner.*

The researchers hoped it would be possible to combine different drugs into separate layers of the single coating. “We set about to build something with multiple components,” says Kris Wood, a graduate student at MIT in charge of the project. It turned out to be much more complex than they’d anticipated, however. In their first attempts, components added in successive layers ended up mixing together, causing them to be released all at once, rather than sequentially. Eventually, the researchers discovered that heating a layer between different components, so that polymers formed covalent bonds, would create a “net or meshwork,” Wood says, that kept the components from mixing.

This method can be used to combine any components that have different electrical charges, holding the coating together electrostatically. These could include various polymers and drugs, nanostructures, such as highly branched dendrimers that can assist with drug delivery, and particles of metals such as silver, known to have antimicrobial properties.

*Clarification: Hammond developed the first such coatings that break down in the body. Most other electrostatic, layer-by-layer coatings do not break down in the body.

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