Chemistry Breakthrough Turns Gels into Swiss Army Knives of Medicine


A new study published on the cover of the prestigious journal Chemistry – A European Journal details an innovative approach to designing hydrogels with specific properties and functions. Conducted by researchers at the Polytechnic University of Milan, the findings demonstrate how supramolecular chemistry and crystallography can be combined to finely tune hydrogels, opening new possibilities for biomedical and cosmetic applications.

Hydrogels are gel-like materials composed primarily of water, yet maintain their solid form due to crosslinked polymer chains. Ubiquitous in everyday products like contact lenses and diapers, hydrogels have drawn increasing interest for their potential medical uses like drug delivery and tissue engineering. “The key was using X-ray diffraction to determine the crystal structure of molecular complexes in the solid state,” explained Dr. Valentina Dichiarante, lead author and chemist at the Polytechnic University of Milan. “This allowed us to predict how the complex would assemble into a hydrogel in water, letting us modulate the gel’s properties and performance.”

The researchers focused their study on an amino acid called Fmoc-pentafluoro-phenylalanine, which reliably forms a hydrogel when mixed with water alone. However, adding other molecules like vitamin B3 creates strong attractive forces that alter the hydrogel’s structure and release kinetics. “We found the interactions were identical, whether in the solid crystal or aqueous gel state,” said Dr. Dichiarante. “This demonstrates a supramolecular synergy between the two phases.”

According to Dr. Pierangelo Metrangolo, senior author and expert in supramolecular chemistry, this approach provides unprecedented control over hydrogel design. “The interactions between solid-phase components let us finely tune the gel’s strength, porosity, and other properties. It’s an ideal platform for controlled release of drugs, nutrients, or other active compounds.”

Potential applications include wound healing bandages that release antibiotics, injectable gels that deliver drugs over time, and cosmetic creams that slowly release vitamins or moisturizing compounds into the skin. “This research opens up entirely new possibilities for targeted hydrogel design,” remarked Dr. Metrangolo. “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what these supramolecular synergy gels can do.”

The editors of Chemistry – A European Journal were so impressed, that they selected the Milan team’s paper as the journal’s main cover feature. “Being chosen for the cover highlights the importance and novelty of this work,” said Dr. Dichiarante. “It’s wonderful to receive this recognition from leaders in the field.” Drs. Dichiarante and Metrangolo hope this new methodology will become widely adopted by hydrogel researchers across disciplines. “We’re excited to see how others apply this approach,” concluded Dr. Metrangolo. “The interfaces between chemistry, materials science, and biomedicine continue to yield fascinating discoveries.”

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