A recent piece of biomedical research has drawn extensively from an unexpected source, glacial moraines. Moraines form as glaciers advance across landscapes over hundreds or even thousands of years, pushing rocks and boulders along their way. As glaciers recede, they leave behind those piles of rocky materials, which we call moraines.
This phenomenon caught the attention of researchers at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, who want to deliver micro-therapies with more precision, by controlling both the speed with which a drug is released and the spatial pattern it takes inside the body.
Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Hyunjoon Kong and his team suggested using a “microparticle-loaded hydrogel” to deliver microdrug therapy, which in their case was vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that helps stimulate cell growth for regeneration of blood vessels. Their goal is to introduce the VEGF in precise locations at the cellular level in a hydrogel substrate, where it could help repair damaged tissue.
Moraines provided a model of spatial organization. Shear tension in the ice, a product of the increasing weight of the glacier as it grows, drives minerals and sediment trapped inside and next to the glacier outward to its edges, resulting in the pile of soil, rock and debris that makes up a moraine. The researchers realized that the sediment becomes oriented in a very specific way in relation to the movement of the glacier. If they could replicate that behavior inside their hydrogel, they might be able to correctly orient the VEGF inside the host.
Freezing the hydrogel with the VEGF inside it allowed them to orient the drug into uniform channels. They tested it in mice and found the host’s blood cells more easily migrated into the gel, where they came into contact with the VEGF and grew more blood vessels.
Success is encouraging news for biomedicine, and medicine in general, by moving us closer to new procedures that might promote blood vessel generation in damaged tissues in humans, more quickly than is possible at present. But mostly, it is a testament to glaciers and the earth itself, by showing us once again that we strive to do things as perfectly as “accidents” in the natural world. The more fully we understand our natural world, the more capable we are to advance our own technologies.
This article was adapted from “Glacial Moraines Influence New Techniques in Micro Biomedicine,” posted by Paul Chakalian on Mar 10, 2015, on Glacier Hub. The publication was highlighted as the cover image of Volume 4, Issue 2 of Advanced Healthcare Materials, January 28, 2015.