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Replicating Nature's Design Principles to Create Customized Nanofabrics

04 June 2010

Bioengineers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a new technology that may ultimately be used to make nanometer-thick fabrics that are both strong and extremely elastic.

The key breakthrough came in the development of a matrix that can assemble itself through interaction with a thermosensitive surface. The protein composition of that matrix can be customized to generate specific properties, and the nanofabric can then be lifted off as a sheet by altering temperature.

""To date it has been very difficult to replicate this extracellular matrix using manmade materials,"" said Adam W. Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow who is lead author of ""Surface-Initiated Assembly of Protein Nanofabrics,"" which appears in the advance on-line publication of Nano Letters. ""But we thought if cells can build this matrix at the surface of their membranes, maybe we can build it ourselves on a surface too. We were thrilled to see that we could,"" Feinberg said.

High-performance textiles are the main application for this technology. By altering the type of protein used in the matrix, researchers can manipulate thread count, fibre orientation, and other properties to create fabrics with extraordinary properties.

Coauthor Kit Parker is a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Applied Science and associate professor of bioengineering at SEAS, and a Principal Faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

In the area of tissue regeneration, their technology, which is termed protein nanofabrics, represents a significant step forward. Current methods for regenerating tissue typically involve using synthetic polymers to create a scaffolding. But this approach can cause negative side effects as the polymers degrade. By contrast, nanofabrics are made from the same proteins as normal tissue, and thus the body can degrade them with no ill effects once they are no longer needed. Initial results have produced strands of heart muscle similar to the papillary muscle, which may lead to new strategies for repair and regeneration throughout the heart.

""With nanofabrics, we can control thread count, orientation, and composition, and that capability allows us to create novel tissue engineering scaffolds that direct regeneration,"" said Parker. ""It also enables us to exploit the nanoscale properties of these proteins in new ways beyond medical applications. There are a broad range of applications for this technology using natural, or designer, synthetic proteins.""

The research is part of a larger program in Nanotextiles at the Wyss Institute and SEAS. The researchers acknowledge the support of Harvard's Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at Harvard, Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Harvard Center for Nanoscale Systems, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Wyss Institute.