Two UPC researchers create a new generation of smart surgical meshes to treat abdominal and groin hernias

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The Innovation in Materials and Molecular Engineering Group (IMEM) at the UPC has developed a dynamic surgical mesh that can modulate itself according to changes in temperature and humidity to minimise the risks of inflammation and chronic pain in the treatment of abdominal and inguinal hernia. The 4D-POLYSENSE project is part of the European programme Horizon 2020 and has been led by the UPC in collaboration with the company B. Braun Surgical, S.A.U.

Every year, over 20 million surgeries are performed worldwide to repair hernias, most of which are in the abdominal or groin areas. The most effective technique to repair the damaged tissue, whether through open surgery or laparoscopy, is the insertion of a surgical mesh.

Now, as part of the European project 4D-POLYSENSE, the Innovation in Materials and Molecular Engineering Group (IMEM), associated with the Barcelona East School of Engineering (EEBE) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC), has developed a new generation of non-absorbable surgical meshes, with a biocompatible hydrogel layer, designed to help to reduce problems relating to the implantation of rigid polymer materials in areas that are in contact with delicate tissues of the abdominal wall. The key is the smart material with which they are designed: a thermosensitive polymeric gel that can respond to changes in temperature and adapt to the soft tissues by changing shape.

How does the thermosensitive hydrogel act?
Hydrogels are a type of polymeric material that can retain a large quantity of liquid without dissolving. Thermosensitive hydrogels have swelling properties that are modulated by temperature changes. Therefore, in contact with body temperature, the material can expand or contract to adapt to the implantation area. This effect, called the ‘4D response’ or dynamic effect, is achieved by the hydrogel coating on the polypropylene threads of the mesh, which give it the capacity to respond to changes in temperature and humidity.

As explained by the main researcher on the project, Elaine Armelin, from the IMEM, “for the first time, a non-absorbable surgical mesh has been obtained that can offer properties of adaptability depending on the temperature and humidity in the local environment where it will be implanted.” This is the first surgical mesh that can respond to changes in temperature of 25 to 40 degrees centigrade.

The research is currently in the laboratory phase (in vitro). In an article published recently in the scientific journal Advanced Functional Materials, the UPC researchers explained how a static polypropylene mesh could become a dynamic system and how its structural properties change. As Armelin stated, “the manufacture of conventional surgical meshes is based on textile technology, which is widely known, and transforms polymer fibres (1D) into a two-dimensional textile structure (2D). Due to the hydrogel deposition, the 2D structure becomes a smart material that can respond to various stimuli, such as changes in local temperature, to provide an active, dynamic structure with movement capacity so that it can adapt to the environment. It is what is known as 4D technology”.

This capacity for modulation and adaptation of the material will be very useful in surgery. It will facilitate manipulation by the medical team during implantation, and post-operatively it will enable better adaptation of the surrounding tissue and minimization of the risk of pain post-implantation for the patient. “The adaptive effect of the mesh is designed to help to reduce the risk of inflammatory processes that could occur after the surgical intervention, which would lead to an improvement in the quality of life of operated patients, as well as savings for the health system, as it would minimise the risk of reintervention or reduce the medication required for chronic pain”, stated the researcher.

A project with European funding
The project 4D-POLYpropylene meshes as SENsitive motion Sensors (4D POLYSENSE) has been developed over the last two years as part of the European Horizon 2020 programme, with a budget of 159,000 euros. The project has been organised by the researchers Elaine Armelin and Sonia Lanzalaco, from the IMEM research group, associated with the  Department of Chemical Engineering at the UPC, with the support of the company B. Braun Surgical, S.A.U. (Spain), a multinational in the hospital sector that is a leader in the production and sale of health products in Europe, which collaborates actively with various research groups at the UPC. From the company, participants included the director of Research and Development, Pau Turon, and the research team of Meshes and Biosurgicals, with the researchers Christine Weis, Irene Prieto and Kamelia Traeger.

In the current phase of development, the researchers are working on optimising the processes of sterilising the mesh, in collaboration with B. Braun Surgical, S.A.U. 

The research results have also been disseminated in two other international scientific journals: Soft Matter and the Journal of Materials Chemistry B.

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