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PhD students, from left, Barry Badeau, Chris Arakawa and Jared Shadish, along with professor Cole DeForest, who led the research, in their lab at the UW. (University of Washington Photo)

Drugs and other treatments can be life-saving, but sometimes those life-saving abilities can also have harmful side effects.

Researchers at the University of Washington were looking for a way to eliminate those side effects, but the solution they came up with is much more than just a drug delivery vehicle. They created a hydrogel material that actually operates like a tiny computer system, using inputs from the environment around it to decide when to release its cargo. The research was published Monday in the journal Nature Chemistry.

“The modular strategy that we have developed permits biomaterials to act like autonomous computers,” UW chemical engineering assistant professor Cole DeForest, who led the team that designed the material, said in a news release. “These hydrogels can be programmed to perform complex computations based on inputs provided exclusively by their local environment. Such advanced logic-based operations are unprecedented, and should yield exciting new directions in precision medicine.”

The hydrogel is a first for medical science, and could go on to create a whole class of “smart” delivery systems and other tools.

The material was designed using the Boolean principles of mathematic logic, similar to basic computing. Molecular gates in the material can be “programmed” to respond to three different inputs, “yes,” “and,” or “or.” That means the gates will open only when a certain set of conditions are met, or when some conditions but not others are met.

An illustration of one kind of gate, which opens only when two specific environmental conditions are met. (University of Washington Image)

In theory, the hydrogel could be programmed to respond to the specific conditions of a tumor cell. It could then be loaded with a toxic treatment like chemotherapy that is carried into the tumor and then released, avoiding many of the harmful side effects of chemotherapy treatment.

The same is true of dozens of other health scenarios, like delivering antibodies straight to the site of an infection. It could also be used for tasks like 3D tissue engineering, building tissue to be transplanted into patients.

“Our hope is that, by applying Boolean principles to hydrogel design, we can create a class of truly smart therapeutic delivery systems and tissue engineering tools with ever-greater specificity for organs, tissues or even disease states such as tumor environments,” DeForest said . “Using these design principles, the only limits could be our imagination.”

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